Music

High Notes: This Year Was Terrible, but at Least Local Jazz Labels Are Thriving

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In the last year, a missionary-like zeal has taken hold of a handful of independent jazz labels dotting the five boroughs. Some, like Harlem’s Biophilia, are run out of apartments. Others operate in modest offices. What they have most in common, other than a loose sense of a shared genre, is intense dedication to putting out music — despite jazz being a niche and album sales being on the decline. “I felt I had to do this from just a moral perspective,” Fabian Almazan, the founder of Biophilia, tells the Voice. “The financial risk is worth it. I find it rewarding and grounding.”

These labels aren’t new — Almazan founded his slowly in 2011 and will ramp it up in 2017 — but 2016 was a banner year for a couple. A record released last year on the superlative Pi Recordings, Henry Threadgill’s In for a Penny, In for a Pound, won the Pulitzer Prize for music in April. Jana Herzen, founder of the Harlem-based Motéma Music, says this year has been one of their best. “I feel like we hit our stride recently,” she says. “I’m not going to say I’m making a whole lot of money, but the label is definitely thriving.”

Other indie labels in Manhattan — HighNote/Savant, Palmetto, to name a couple — sit closer, like Motéma does, to straight-ahead jazz. But Brooklyn’s AUM Fidelity, Northern Spy, and Yeah Yeah Records, for instance, tend to veer toward the serrated edges. And like Biophilia, many of these were founded by jazz musicians. Almazan is a pianist best known for playing in Terence Blanchard’s band; last year the inventive 25-year-old saxophonist Kevin Sun launched Endectomorph Music in Brooklyn.

All the labels, of course, have the same geographical advantage — and a temporal one, too. “The level of musicianship on the scene now is extremely high, it’s exciting to watch. We have a front seat to some of the greatest jazz in the world,” says Paul Stache, the co-owner of the jazz club Smoke on 106th and Broadway. “We have so much great music coming through the club, you hear it and think, ‘There’s a lot of great musicians out there that don’t have recording agreements.’ ”

So, in 2013, Stache created a label, Smoke Sessions, to help the artists who blew him away “be heard outside the four walls of Smoke.” It’s around the corner from the club, run out of the basement of what was once Duke Ellington’s house.

“We have a luxury that many of the labels that are not in New York don’t have,” says Yulun Wang, the co-owner of Pi Recordings. “Just being here and being able to go out and hear music any night of the week, I think that’s invaluable.” He and founder Seth Rosner “typically don’t put out anything until we’ve heard a project at least once or twice live.

Most of the labels have distributors, both in the U.S. and internationally, and hope to press at least 2,500 CD copies of each release, though sometimes it’s fewer. Despite the swing back toward vinyl, Almazan says, “It’s just not good for the environment, let’s just cut to the chase.” And, as other label owners say, they are costly and slow to produce.

Steven Joerg, the founder of AUM, says his label needs to sell 1,000 units to break even. “I’m not supporting a family on this” — he has two small children — “by any stretch of the imagination. So we’ll see.” His label aims for five releases per year, as does Pi, while Smoke Sessions usually puts out eight or nine. According to Stache, sales are “a lot less than what people think,” but his label is profitable. Wang says Pi earns a profit, too, but that both he and Rosner also have day jobs. “I think if you lived in Dubuque, maybe you can make it work financially, but [in New York] we’re always swimming upstream.”

Motéma, which also has an interest in world music, is the healthiest financially. Herzen has a small full-time staff in a brownstone office and recently hired a CFO. Her label, which has earned a reputation for cultivating serious talent, discovered the singer Gregory Porter, who has since moved over to a resurgent Blue Note. Herzen also helped nurture preteen piano prodigy Joey Alexander, who sold over 50,000 copies of his Motéma release My Favorite Things last year. He also just received his third Grammy nomination.

As for future industry changes that could dampen a label like hers, she prefers not to get too far ahead of herself. “That’s the future, this is now. Whatever comes next, just stay awake, because who knows what else will change by then.”

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