Archive for the ‘jazz’ Category

Streams? What Streams? For Newvelle Records, Vinyl Is the Future

December 27, 2016


PEEKSKILL, N.Y. — The jazz pianist Elan Mehler hovered over a vinyl-cutting lathe at Masterdisk studios as a mastering engineer laid a blank disc onto the plate and paused for a moment, listening for hints of interference as the blade sliced across the surface.

The men were here, an hour north of New York City, to cut master recordings for Newvelle Records, the small label that Mr. Mehler, 37, founded two years ago with his business partner, Jean-Christophe Morisseau. The discs will be sent to France to be replicated en masse and mailed to Newvelle’s subscribers.

Well, sort of en masse. Like everything at Newvelle, these records will be released only on vinyl, in small releases of 500. No CDs, no digital downloads, no streaming.

It’s all part of Mr. Mehler’s plan to produce first-rate jazz recordings in the digital age. That the music will reach only a small handful of listeners, at least initially, is a necessary downside, Mr. Mehler said

“It’s a model that sustains the music,” he said. “I came to this idea of how to record because of how difficult it is to make a record as a jazz musician.”

Jazz accounted for just 1 percent of all record sales in the United States in 2015, according to Nielsen’s year-end report. But jazz buyers do purchase actual albums: Almost half of those jazz records were bought in physical form. And across all genres, vinyl sales continue to rise; according to Nielsen’s midyear report, in the first half of 2016, vinyl accounted for 12 percent of physical album sales, up 3 percent over the same period a year ago.

Mr. Mehler first had the idea to start a label that would marshal the appeal of vinyl a few years ago, while living in Paris. He mentioned it to Mr. Morisseau, 48, a French businessman who was taking piano lessons from him. They started meeting regularly and sketched out a plan.

Musicians would receive a flat fee to record their albums, with Newvelle fronting the cost of production at a world-class studio in Lower Manhattan. The label would retain exclusive rights to the music for two years, offering it only on elegantly packaged vinyl and only to subscribers, who would pay $400 for a year’s worth of recordings: six in all, sent at two-month intervals.

After two years, the artists would have the right to release the music independently, as long as Newvelle retained exclusive vinyl-distribution privileges.

Mr. Mehler and Mr. Morisseau released their first season over the past year, reaching about 200 subscribers, and in November they completed a Kickstarter campaign to finance the second. That drive signed up about 50 subscribers and raised over $25,000.

Newvelle’s records adhere to the kind of gossamer, “chamber jazz” aesthetic that characterizes most of Mr. Mehler’s work as a pianist, but they feature a range of musicians, from jazz’s nobility to its rising stars.

For the first season, the pre-eminent drummer and sometime keyboardist Jack DeJohnette recorded his first solo piano album, “Return,” a collection of gentle but austere compositions, often in a plaintive minor key. Noah Preminger, a young tenor saxophonist with a dusted and blossoming tone, made a ballads record with an all-star quartet.

Each album in the first season featured images by the French photographer Bernard Plossu, and poems from the Pulitzer Prize winner Tracy K. Smith were printed in the liner notes. This season, which is priced at $360, the albums will feature photos by the French collective Tendance Floue. The novelist Douglas Kennedy is writing a short story that will be serialized across the six records, with a different portion on each album cover.

Rufus Reid, an esteemed bassist, has recorded an album for the coming season, featuring his jazz trio alongside the Sirius String Quartet. He said he was grateful for the opportunity to produce a graceful product and to see his ambitions encouraged rather than resisted. “I think there’s been a longing for people to listen more intently, and the vinyl kind of makes you do that,” he said, adding, “Other labels aren’t really putting out any cash for the whole kit and caboodle of recording an album.”

In its focus on vinyl and its distinctive, brand-coherent album art, Newvelle is a kind of throwback to jazz’s midcentury glories. But it’s also timely. Vinyl is becoming the quintessential luxury item for a music business in transition. And across industries, small companies like Newvelle are using subscription services to market niche products.

“The vinyl form, for Elan, really represented this idea of a pure sound, something that’s very high-quality and that every artist is very keen on,” Mr. Morisseau said. “So my idea was to say, ‘O.K., let’s treat the vinyl and the music like a luxury good.’”

For Newvelle’s musicians, the studio does not serve as a conduit to a broad audience so much as a site for the celebration of their craft. It does little to emulate the bandstand, jazz’s onetime breeding ground, but it does suggest a survival technique for jazz in lean times. And it signals that when jazz becomes a luxury item, product may matter more than populism


The Man Behind All That Jazz

April 19, 2011

By MARC MYERS 04/15/11   Wall Street Journal

Producer Creed Taylor changed the direction of jazz when he founded Impulse Records in 1960. Jazz fans are more likely to recognize his signature than his picture: His oversized John Hancock has appeared on hundreds of jazz albums on five labels, but the 81-year-old Mr. Taylor has always maintained a low profile.

[ARENA G] Jeffrey Salter for The Wall Street JournalJazz producer Creed Taylor started Impulse Records more than 50 years ago. He was up against a music industry dominated by pop.

Next week, the Universal Music Group is celebrating the first six Impulse albums that Mr. Taylor released in 1961 with “First Impulse: The Creed Taylor Collection 50th Anniversary.” The four-CD set includes albums by Kai Winding, J.J. Johnson, Gil Evans, Ray Charles, Oliver Nelson and John Coltrane.

Mr. Taylor left Impulse in 1961 for Verve and later formed another influential label, CTI. In an interview, he spoke recently about starting Impulse, crafting a brand and producing Coltrane.


Impulse RecordsAfrica/Brass, The John Coltrane Quartet

The Wall Street Journal: What was the jazz record business like in 1960?

Mr. Taylor: Small and growing smaller. Pop dominated sales, and rock was coming on. Prestige, Blue Note, Riverside and other jazz labels were recording great musicians. But those companies did little to generate sales. They viewed marketing as selling out. I wanted to create a jazz label that sounded great, looked great and sold extremely well.

Sounds like a no-brainer.

It wasn’t. I was obsessed with jazz but I also knew that records were a business. I wanted to run a label where I could choose songs that appealed to different radio markets, build a mystique for artists through album packaging and create excitement among retailers and consumers.

Who came up with the Impulse name?

I did. My first choice was Pulse. It meant a beat, being alive and driven. But after I submitted Pulse for trademark registration, I heard back that another company already owned it. I wanted to put through another name fast, impulsively. That’s when I said to myself, “Hey, Impulse, that’s even better than Pulse.”

Why use black and orange on all of the albums?

For consistency and branding. Those colors stood out at stores. But I also wanted the records to feel dark and mysterious—like at night, when most people went out to hear jazz. The color black made you feel like it was midnight. The orange had the feel of a neon sign. You were drawn to go inside the album to hear what was going on—just as though you were outside a club.

Impulse covers were glossy and swung open. Why spend the extra money?

Laminated covers and gatefolds made the records feel precious, like lacquered furniture. As a result, consumers would treat them better and leave them out at home for others to see.

You released the first four Impulse albums at once in February 1961?

Yes, to create a large footprint in stores. If I had released them one at a time, the label wouldn’t have made as much noise or signaled to retailers that we were here to stay.

The four albums purposefully covered a range of jazz styles. “The Great Kai and J.J.” was small-group jazz. Ray Charles’ “Genius + Soul = Jazz” was funky big-band jazz. Gil Evans’ “Out of the Cool” was orchestral and “The Incredible Kai Winding Trombones” was pop. My goal was to convince different late-night disk jockeys to play the albums. I also urged them to tell the drive-time DJs who followed to play them, too. It worked.

So what exactly did you do as Impulse’s producer?

Do? [laughs] I had to come up with an album’s concept. Then I needed to choose the right mix of jazz musicians, pick the songs and work with the arranger. In the studio, I would read the arranger’s score while listening hard to what we were recording.

Listen hard?

In the engineer’s booth at Rudy Van Gelder’s recording studio, where I recorded, I typically stood with my left ear close to the monitor speaker. I did this to get a feel for the dynamics and hear in detail what the consumer would experience.

Oliver Nelson’s “Blues and the Abstract Truth” was the fifth album released by Impulse. What does the title mean?

I wanted the names of all the Impulse albums to be a little offbeat, to make people wonder. Much of the material on Oliver’s album was blues but it also was abstract. Even when abstract, there was an honesty and truthfulness to the music.

Did you sign John Coltrane to Impulse?

Larry Newton [president of ABC-Paramount, Impulse’s parent company] did based on my recommendation. I had heard John at the Village Vanguard toward the end of 1960 and called him to see if he wanted to switch from Atlantic.

How did you produce Coltrane’s “Africa/Brass?”

John came up to my office at ABC with saxophonist Eric Dolphy. Oliver Nelson was supposed to arrange the album but couldn’t do it. Eric took on the assignment. John wanted the album to have an Africa theme. I suggested adding the brass concept.

Why brass?

All of John’s albums up until that point had featured just a rhythm section. Brass would add dimension and texture. Eric took the concept one step further and arranged the orchestra to depict wailing humanity, that sort of thing. Wailing required a special kind of instrumentation that captured sadness and blues.

So what’s with the jumbo signature on all of your albums?

In the late ’50s, an Australian writer visiting Brazil picked up an ABC album I had produced and suggested I sign them, like a painting. I realized that by doing so, buyers would see that a real person was responsible for the album, not an anonymous corporation. One day I just added my signature. No one at ABC said a word.

Clint Eastwood: Jazz Was His Earliest Muse

February 23, 2011

Carmel, Calif.

I’m here to talk to one of America’s premier filmmakers about his career in the industry, but his eyes light up when I ask him about his first love—jazz. “It’s always fun to talk about jazz,” says Clint Eastwood, seated at a small table not far from the baby grand piano that fills his Mission Ranch Restaurant with jazz each night. We’re looking out at a picturesque meadow and a flock of grazing sheep he jokingly calls his “girlfriends.”

At 80, Mr. Eastwood is busier than most men half his age. A self-taught pianist and composer, the actor and Oscar- winning director has (with longtime collaborator Lennie Niehaus and, more recently, his son, Kyle Eastwood) scored and written songs for many of his films, including “Unforgiven,” “Mystic River,” Million Dollar Baby,” “Gran Torino” and “Hereafter.”

He once said jazz and westerns are perhaps the only truly American art forms. I ask him where he acquired his love for the former. “When I was a kid, I’d listen to jazz records and copy them on the piano,” he says, fingering imaginary keys. The Fats Waller albums his mother brought to their house near Oakland, Calif., were an early influence.

Before long, while still in his teens, he was hitting local jazz clubs. “In the Bay Area,” he explains, “there was a resurgence of Dixieland jazz in the ’40s—there was the Frisco Jazz Band, and Lu Watters and the Yerba Buena Jazz Band. I used to go out to a place called Hambone Kelly’s in El Cerrito. And because I was fairly big for my age, I could go in there and get a beer and sit in the back and listen to these players.”

As the ’40s progressed, Mr. Eastwood, along with jazz enthusiasts everywhere, embraced the new harmonic and rhythmic intricacies of bebop. “I started listening to modern jazz players like Charlie Ventura, Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker.” As a young man, he saw Parker perform several times, which later influenced his decision to make “Bird,” the critically acclaimed 1988 film about the brilliant but troubled alto saxophonist.

“I became kind of a jazz freak,” he says. “I read every book there was on jazz, about the original players—King Oliver, Buddy Bolden and all those groups. At one time I was fairly well schooled in that . . . I could tell you who played where and when, historically, way before my time.”

Sneaking into jazz venues at a young age sounds a lot like Bix Beiderbecke, the innovative white musician of the ’20s who would skip school to play with black musicians after hours in Chicago clubs. Was he ever attracted to Bix’s story?

“Yeah, I was,” he says. “I liked him very much. . . . He was an interesting piano player. He wrote ‘In a Mist,’ for example, which was a hit in its time. . . . Then the fact that he moved to the cornet, the idiosyncrasies he had, wanting to have the music closer to his head, and that sort of thing. He was definitely a great player. But [like Bird] he was one of those guys who lived hard and burned out fast. . . . I don’t want to make a habit of doing stories on people who have brilliance but shine bright for a very short period of time.”

Mr. Eastwood’s known for featuring classic jazz recordings in his films, most famously in his 1971 film “Play Misty for Me,” which is named after and centered on Erroll Garner’s ballad “Misty,” first recorded in 1954. Last year, he executive-produced a documentary on one of jazz’s most respected and enduring artists: “Dave Brubeck: In His Own Sweet Way.” Directed by Bruce Ricker, the film premiered in December just in time for Mr. Brubeck’s 90th birthday. Similar Eastwood projects include the superb biopic “Thelonious Monk: Straight No Chaser” (1988), which he produced; and “Piano Blues” (2003), which he co-produced and directed for Martin Scorsese’s seven-film documentary series for PBS, “The Blues.”

But what is it, I ask, that makes jazz so quintessentially American? “It’s something that could only come out of such a diverse country as America,” Mr. Eastwood says. “And jazz players . . . were pioneers of integration, because you were judged by your ability in an era when people were judging people by a lot of other things—social factors, color, etc. So it seemed like respecting somebody just for their talent was important.”

Born on May 31, 1930, in San Francisco, Mr. Eastwood remembers the lean years of the Depression and the blues and jazz that came out of that time. His father, Clinton Eastwood Sr., traveled from town to town looking for work before settling the family in the Bay Area.

“Growing up I was always rooting for the jazz musician,” he says. “I remember I was disturbed when there was a big objection to Nat King Cole moving into Hancock Park in Los Angeles. I didn’t know Hancock Park at that time, because I was just a kid in Oakland. But I always thought: ‘God, who wouldn’t want to have Nat Cole living next to him?’ Not only because he was a popular guy, but he was one of those few popular guys who was a great jazz player as well, a great piano player.”

Some of the greatest artists of the 20th century, Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, for instance, were not allowed to play certain venues or alongside white musicians. Jazz may have been born out of America’s unique diversity, I suggest, but it also collided head on with the racism and bigotry of the time.

“It was a disgraceful time,” Mr. Eastwood says. “I remember living through it. You had to have all-white bands or all-black bands or they’d send you away. Woody Herman and Ernie Royal had an occasional mixture. But by and large you couldn’t play certain places . . . especially in the South, but across the whole country, really.”

Armstrong, he continues, helped spearhead integration in jazz and elsewhere because “he traveled with a band that was mostly black, but he also had [the white trombonist] Jack Teagarden with him. So certain places wouldn’t book him. But he didn’t give a [expletive]. Dave Brubeck and a lot of people would eventually have integrated bands. But it’s a sad state of history when here you’ve got this great art form and certain people can’t play it together.” Still, he says, it’s the racial and cultural melting pot of America that “gives jazz its great power.”

After the interview, I join Mr. Eastwood for a few drinks that evening back at the Mission Ranch piano bar. He rattles off the name of every tune the gentleman at the baby grand plays—who performed it, when it was recorded, etc. Then, as the opening notes of one song are played, his expression changes —he’s listening intently. It’s the theme to “Hereafter,” his 2010 film. “This one’s mine,” he says, before losing himself once again in the music.