Smashing Jazzheads on the Punk Rock with AUM Fidelity
'My concept of a label came from SST Records in high school when I was getting into punk rock," explains Steven Joerg, owner, operator, and sole employee of the Brooklyn-based "jazz-forward" label AUM Fidelity. "My introduction to them was when I got The Blasting Concept compilation with the [Raymond] Pettibon drawing on the cover. I was like, 'What the fuck? Whoa.' "
Pettibon's trademark grisly art—a scrawl of a scuzzball dude choking the life from a chick sprawled naked below him—both epitomized Black Flag guitarist Greg Ginn's '80s Amerindie institution and imprinted the jolting imprint of its DIY aesthetic on Joerg's psyche. Sixteen years have passed since he launched AUM Fidelity after selling his car and half of his record collection, not to mention liquidating his savings and taking out a loan. He has remained as staunchly independent and music-driven as SST was to this day. "I was all about introducing this work to the world," he recalls. "It was about having worldwide distribution and recording amazing albums. And that remains the main thing I do."
Avant-garde legend John Zorn personally tabbed Joerg to curate his Avenue C experimental and avant-garde nest the Stone for the second half of June. AUM Fidelity's stacked roster of jazz visionaries, including saxman David S. Ware and the revelatory duo of rising sax virtuoso Darius Jones and the veteran pianist Matthew Shipp, will set the tiny space ablaze during the course of the month.
Joerg first honed his chops at Bar/None Records before landing at Homestead as label manager in 1992, when it possessed a trailblazer-stacked roster (Dinosaur Jr., Sonic Youth, and Big Black). Upon arrival, Joerg, who was "not a jazz historian but certainly well-versed in its history," set forth a radical vision—integrating jazz on a predominantly indie-rock imprint—that sent him on what he calls, quite seriously, a "mission from God."
"It started with [free jazz drummer] William Hooker, actually," Joerg explains. "That was the initial entrée. William was playing with Thurston [Moore] and Lee [Ranaldo] in the rock clubs and going in that realm. William sent me a postcard in the mail—very old-school. He wrote, 'Hey, how can I present something that Homestead could put out?' I sent him a postcard back saying, 'Yeah, send me a tape, certainly.' I was familiar with him and seen him a few times. And the tape he sent me became the album that came out: Radiation."
That cataclysmic free-improv shredder came out in 1994, and AUM Fidelity slowly came to be after that. First, Joerg forged relationships with the then-obscure triumvirate of Ware, William Parker (bass), and Shipp. "Matt had a duet record with William on a Texas punk-rock label which had a distro deal with Dutch East," Joerg recalls. "He was in the office on a regular basis, dropping off presses and saying 'hey' to the Dutch East salespeople—hustling, basically. So I got to know Matt that way. He knew I put out the Hooker record. One day, Matt came in and gave me a David S. Ware Quartet record, Third Ear Recitation. I went home, listened to it, and was completely bowled over."
After hitting the Knitting Factory on Houston to see the Ware Quartet, Joerg was sold. "I saw them two weeks later and when first meeting David, I was nervous because he's an imposing individual, artistically and being a big dude," he reminisces. "Seeing him play live, I was blown away; it was one of the greatest musical experiences I've had." Alas, he faced a tough sell to Homestead's upper echelon. "The idea of signing the Ware Quartet was a bit of a stretch, but I convinced them. The first record we did—Cryptology—ended up being the lead review in Rolling Stone."
Joerg left Homestead in 1996, and the next year AUM released the Ware Quartet's Wisdom of Uncertainty, then Parker's Sunrise in the Tone World. "I knew I wanted to do my own thing, focus on this jazz music and these artists," says Joerg. "It was a big leap, but I was completely moved by the music." Parker was an instant convert to Joerg's artist-friendly, split-profits philosophy that was born from his punk-rock lineage, and the antithesis of the business models used by vanguard jazz labels such as Impulse! or ESP-Disk.
"During the '70s, it was hard to find a record company interested in my music," Parker explains via email. "I was a New York musician, and some of us were labeled hardcore avant-garde. So we put out our own recordings. But underneath, I knew it was the musician's job to play music and the job of the record company to produce, sell, and distribute the music on the same level as the music itself. Steven Joerg does just that: record the music with compassion. He overlooks each aspect of the process: from the artwork which he designs, to distribution and to the bookkeeping, which is a very important part of the process. I can totally trust him and consider him an extra member of the band."
Joerg's modest persona results in him squirming when he has to talk about himself. He'd rather discuss AUM's newest releases: Farmers by Nature, a full-on improv unit led by the shape-shifting pianist Craig Taborn whose compositions juxtapose frenetic maelstroms and subtle nuances; the strident tenor blast of Planetary Unknown, featuring Ware's first-ever collaboration with Cooper-Moore and the recorded debut of late drums legend Rashied Ali's brother, Mohammed Ali; and Cosmic Lieder, Jones's and Shipp's otherworldly, soul-searching melding of alto sax and piano.
Most of these pioneering avant-gardists will be gracing the Stone's storied, mangy floor (on which Yoko fuckin' Ono writhed just weeks ago), as will improv guitar-picking purveyor Joe Morris, the furious punk-jazz terrorists Little Women (with Jones), and silky jazz-funk troupe Mike Pride's From Bacteria to Boys (with Jones, yet again). Joerg happened upon the omnipresent, talented Jones (who will be playing no fewer than three projects at the Stone) at the Williamsburg music pub Zebulon, something for which the fledgling alto composer is forever grateful. "Personally and professionally, Steven has been a blessing to me. When he first approached me to be a part of AUM, I had no idea what that would look like," Jones says via email. "After recording my debut Man'ish Boy with him, I realized I had found a friend and that necessary element to help my musical career blossom."
Joints like Park Slope's multicultural music nook Barbès, Gowanus's experimental haven Issue Project Room, and performance/art space Littlefield book Joerg's stable of musicians regularly. "Yes, I've played a role in getting the music world to know Ware and Parker," says Joerg. "But as far as creating a 'scene'? No. I'm happy to have been there at the right place and right time and been inspired to take action to introduce 'Jazz Now.' Every-body who loves music loves some part of Coltrane, right? I wanted to introduce people to these men and that remains the reality: These giants walk among us now, and you got to fucking pay attention."
AUM Fidelity's Steven Joerg curates the Stone June 16 through 30
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