In a time when the music business, as many other other branches of commerce, is in crisis, it has become increasingly relevant to ask what needs to be done in order to save record labels. While the major companies retreat to protective copyright thinking and unimaginative repacking of archive material, a new host of independent labels is embracing the possibilities of the new digital area, seeing it as blessing rather than a curse. What drives these independent labels is the love of the music itself. Rather than thinking in cash and commerce terms, what counts to them is to have good music out there, no matter how difficult it may be to sell it, believing that great art eventually will find its way to those who seek it.
Pianist John Esposito's Sunjump label is an example of such an independent label. It has done a lot to promote that area of jazz music which lies outside the narrow definitions of commercial genres and target groups. It is the ability to take chances when no one else dares that has been the hallmark of Sunjump, and that was also the case back in the mid-1980s when Esposito had just recorded with his group Second Sight and was in search of label willing to put the music out.
"I formed Sunjump in 1986," says Esposito. "Second Sight had been together for a year. We did a short demo that no one was interested in and that we didn't really know what to do with. I felt we should go ahead and produce our own record date and try to sell the master to an established label or press it ourselves. We were in NYC and there were so many scam artists and disinterested or dishonest labels that I decided to try to release the album Flying With The Comet (Sunjump 1986/2007) on my own label and at least be in control of getting it out to radio and press. That turned out to be a good idea. I found a partner, Elliot Lloyd, who was very good at promotion. We got lots of airplay and press and worked in New York City and the northeast part of the USA quite a bit.
"We recorded a second CD, Tiger Tracks, the following year, 1987, but we didn't have the money to put it out. We also expanded a bit and released Jose Chalas' Living On Avenue F and Marc Wagnons Shadowlines. I ran out of money to produce projects, having a family with two kids to feed, so the label died. My business partner Lloyd went on to manage Matt Ship for a while, while working for a small label in NYC and died of lymphoma a few years later. Second Sight folded in 1990. Our last gigs were in Woodstock for the FM Artists Coalition. Everyone went on to do their own projects. I worked a lot as a sideman with [drummer] Franklin Kiermyer, [saxophonist] Eric Person and lots of other people. In 2003, with no family obligations, I decided to get back to concentrating on playing my own music and to reviving Sunjump."
Down Blue Marlin Road
The first release on the resurrected Sunjump label was a recording of Esposito's trio with bassist Ira Coleman and drummer Peter O'Brien, thereby setting the pattern of future releases with Esposito involved either as leader or sideman. As he says: "The CDs I release on Sunjump are projects that I have been involved in that I find interesting and it is music that I want to hear. Sometimes I've played music that I don't care about and immediately forget, but there is also music that I play with people not only for the pleasure of making it but because I want to be able to listen to it myself."
Down Blue Marlin Road is a particularly strong re-imagination of the standard repertoire of the piano trio. Old staples like "Body and Soul," "Autumn Leaves" and "I'll Remember April" are turned inside-out; not only musically but also in the titles where they're cut down to "Soul," "Autumn" and "April." The same level of condensation takes place in the musical syntax, but there's nothing elliptic about the music. If anything, Esposito's re-workings are expansions of the music, which breaks down the accustomed way of listening to the familiar structures of the standard, changing rhythms and harmony into an expression where tradition is both referenced and transgressed.
Sangeeta Michael Berardi
Tradition is also an important aspect of guitarist Sangeeta Michael Berardis' Earthship (Sunjump 2008), but is not so much the heritage of the standards as the legacy of saxophonist John Coltrane that looms largely over the album. Besides Esposito, Sangeeta is joined by tenor saxophonist James Finn, bassist Hilliard Greene and drummer Peter O'Brien. From the epic opener, "Earthship," with a spellbinding melodic piano figure, to the inventive cover of the Coltrane-patented standard, "My Favorite Things," they create a deeply spiritual music, encompassing quiet mediations and wild explosions. Sangeeta's tone combines elements of aggressiveness and tranquility, occasionally fat and mellow, other times distorted and razor sharp.
The music carries many influences—from Indian ragas to fusion, free jazz and art rock—but at the heart of it all is the ambition of creating sounds that match the vibrations of the universe. As the enclosed poem written by Sangeeta says: "The universe is an Ocean of Infinite Vibrations / Our ears & brains translate certain vibrations into audible sound / Other frequencies pass through us unheard." That's what the album is all about: opening up the frequencies that were hitherto unheard.
A Book of Five Rings
Sangeeta Michael Barardis Earthship was originally recorded in 1996 and it's characteristic of Sunjump that it works in the area of archival recordings and also with contemporary releases. When it comes to preparing the lost sessions different strategies are applied. It all depends on whether the recordings are from the 1980s or 1990s.
Esposito explains: "The projects recorded in the '80s were done in the studio on multi-track analog tape. They have been baked at low temperature to restore their playability and then transferred to digital hard drive. The studio recordings are then remixed by Scott Petito at NRS Studio in Catskill, NY. He's brilliant at the whole studio process from recording to mixing, editing and mastering. There are often problems like finding Dolby machines for the transfers, but we have been able to work it out.
"Some of the '80s recordings were made on poor quality cassette machines. Editing and digital cleaning are necessary. And those projects are not multi-tracked and cannot be remixed. We do whatever is possible with EQ, editing and cleaning. The '90s recordings are a mixed bag of multi-track analog, digital and DAT. The Knitting Factory concerts—my A Book Of Five Rings and Jayna Nelson's upcoming Bloom Of Creation—were done on DAT. So on those we edited, either for time considerations or digital tape damage, and cleaned to remove noise."
A Book of Five Rings is a fine illustration of how it is possible to achieve a warm, crisp sound with archival releases. The album documents a live concert where Esposito is working with a large ensemble and the energy shines through. "Bwarat" is fiery tribal dance reminiscent of Pierre Dorge's New Jungle Orchestra while "Coltrane's Church" is Esposito's beautiful homage to the saxophonist. All the musical voices work together in a perfect setting—with especially the talented saxophonist Eric Person, who is also heard on The Blue People (Sunjump, 2006), doing some forceful blowing. There's not an inch of dust on this recording. The music is as fresh as it possibly can be.
This is also the case with the recording from Steve Geraci, another guitarist on Sunjump. Aliqae Song was recorded back in 1980 but never saw the light of day until Esposito decided to put it out in 2009. Compared to Sangeeta Michael Berardi, Steve Geraci is a very different stylist with a much lighter tone, which combines elements of swing, Eastern music and rock. On Aliqae Song the collaboration with vocalist Kit Potter is especially fascinating, as is evident on the title track with the vocal and guitar lines coalescing. Another highlight is the gently propulsive "The New Soft Shoe," where drummer Rashied Ali is a guest.
It is hard to tell that the music was recorded in the 1980s. It has a timeless quality about it that stands above the somewhat conservative area in which it was created. Speaking of the musical environment back in that decade, Esposito says: "I was living in New York in the '80s and competing with musicians who had a very conservative and therefore commercial view of music. The Young Lions aesthetic is as commercial as the Smooth Jazz aesthetic. One audience is not more enlightened than the other and both camps of musicians are equally serious about their point of view from both the aspects of art and commerce. I tend to not think of art and commerce as being very connected, so I am a very bad businessperson.
"I am only interested in listening to and making music that wakes up my ears and heart and that kind of music is always around hiding in the shadows whether talking about the '80s or now. There is a tendency in this country towards boring jazz music but that is a function of people learning to play in school. The American educational system creates very good low-wage workers for corporations, but is designed to crush creativity and individuality with rules, tests and pharmaceuticals. Fewer and fewer Americans know how to question authority and the status quo and few are able to look at the world through innocent eyes.
"So what kind of improviser does that worldview create? It's important to know and love tradition and be willing to change it or ignore it. The old system of learning to play in clubs, self-education, the street and mystery had its advantages however difficult it was."
While it may be true that progressive music will always be lurking in the shadows, Esposito's label gives evidence that it doesn't necessarily have to be so. Sunjump shows that it possible to revisit and rewrite the past and dig up forgotten treasures, but it is just as much concerned with contemporary music. One of the latest releases is Erratica a record from saxophonist Mitch Kessler who is joined by Esposito's own trio. Together they play all new material by the leader whose dry, swinging sound is both abstract and melodically inventive.
There's also a great deal of humour involved with titles like "The Sixth Marx Brother," "Deconstructing Post" and "Goblins in Love," but that doesn't mean that the music is light-hearted, on the contrary it comes across tightly knit and yet open to improvisational surprises. This is due, in no small part, to Esposito's trio who are the perfect partners to Kessler. They share the same understanding of fluid form and the blending of modern abstraction and straight-ahead swing. Bassist Ira Coleman's warm, woody tone is joy to behold, as is Esposito's encyclopaedic mastery of the piano, and drummer Peter O'Brien keeps it all together with his infectious rhythms and free form abstractions.
When asked about the future plans of the label, Esposito reveals: "The next release will be flutist Jayna Nelson's "Bloom Of Creation," a 1999 Knitting Factory concert with trumpeter Matt Schulman, me on piano, bassist Francois Moutin and drummer Pete O'Brien. The music was completely improvised. It was the first and only time that group played together and it had the kind of magic that jazz should have. I will do another trio recording with Ira Coleman and Pete O'Brien, busy schedules permitting, in October. It will be of my compositions.
"Another new project I am hoping to record this year, would be a DVD of a group I put together and performed with this past spring with violinist Rosi Hertlein, flutist Jayna Nelson, trumpeter Greg Glassman, saxophonist Stacy Dillard, bassists Hill Greene and Emma Alabaster, drummer Peter O'Brien, video artist Laura Steele and me on piano, electric keyboard loops and drums. The next two archival projects are Second Sight's Tiger Tracks 1987, previously unreleased, and the rest of the material from Sangeeta Michael Berardi's Earthship date Calling Coltrane."
Thus, there is no sign of crisis when speaking about the future. In fact, Esposito is very positive about the development of the music industry: "At this point in time it makes sense to produce your own recordings and release them internationally on the net. The chain stores are gone. Young people download and file share, which means that CDs are no longer a business. You can't sell a product you don't control access to. You do get the music out to people all over the world who would have not been able to find it in the days of record company control of the means of distribution and promotion. The people who support this music the most are often fans who love it enough to write about it, radio dj the music and produce concerts. They are usually people who don't see art as a business but as an act of love. I feel the same way. Music is a great source of spiritual enrichment and makes life worth living. It's not a business and neither is Sunjump Records. I expect to spend money on it. I don't expect to make much back."
So far Sunjump has succeeded on its own terms, which is about artistic value and not about finance and the value of a product. In that sense, Sunjump is not alone but part of a new movement in American music. Says Esposito: "Sunjump is just part of a larger phenomenon that is happening: individual musicians are producing music projects on a level equal to or superior to the projects that large record companies used to produce. The large companies are folding or hanging on by producing predictable mass-market music or occasionally stumbling onto a creative project that also makes them some money. It's easier now for individual, independent musicians to record an ongoing, changing body of work and get it to the specific people who want to hear it no matter where they are in the world."
Seen from this point, there isn't a crisis in music, but rather in the corporations that sell music as a predefined product. The dissemination of music is, in fact, a freedom that lies very close to the nature of jazz, which was never about restrictions. This is also true when thinking about the conception of history. Regarding this problem Esposito makes a point: "I have no way of judging the importance of events in my own lifetime. In my lifetime I've watched Bela Bartok's importance in the Conservatory world change from an avant-garde madman, to a minor ethnic composer, to perhaps the greatest composer of the 20th century, to a non-person."
While the tides of history indeed may be changing, Sunjump itself is a proof of how previously neglected musicians are gaining providence thanks to the label's effort. But it's a resurrection not for the sake of history itself, but for the relevance of today. Whether releasing music that ties the knot between the past and present or bringing out historical music ahead of its time, Sunjump's musical profile is located in the here and now. It is a musical archaeology of the present.
Tracks and Personnel
Down Blue Marlin Road
Tracks: Beloved; It Was Just...; Soul; Autumn; April; ...9...; Red; Ocean; Down Blue Marlin Road; ...Of Those Things; Ganges.
Personnel: John Esposito: piano; Ira Coleman: bass; Peter O'Brien: drums.
Track listing: Earthship; Sahara Song; Coltrane's Love Lights Our Way; Six for Rashied; Eleutheria; Trane's Church; Evening, Woodstock; Onedaruth; My Favorite Things.
Personnel: Sangeeta Michael Berardi: guitar, pedals; John Espoito: piano, drums (3, 6, 8); James Finn: tenor sax, flute, bass clarinet, bells; Hilliard Greene: bass; Peter O'Brien: drums.
A Book of Five Rings
Tracks: Bwarat; Smitty; Two Worlds; You Get What You Want; And His Spirit Ascended/Trane's Church.
Personnel: John Esposito: piano; Jayna Nelson: flute; Matt Schulman: trumpet; Eric Person: soprano & alto saxophone; James Finn: bass clarinet & tenor saxophone; Tony Underwood: tuba; Hilliard Greene: bass; Peter O'Brien: drums.
Tracks: Aliqae Song; Main St. Stroll; Those Precious Years; The New Soft Shoe; Rendezvous.
Personnel: Steve Geraci: guitar; Kit Potter: vocals; Arthur Rhames: alto saxophone; John Stubblefield: flute, soprano & tenor saxophone; John Esposito: piano; Charlie Knicely: bass; Jeff Siegel: drums; Rashied Ali: drums (track 4); Frederick Berryhill: percussion.
Tracks: The Sixth Marx Brother; Deconstructing Post; Modernist Dilletantism; Erratica; Panic; The Ugliest Beauty; Bibi Andersson; Brain Freeze; Goblins In Love.
Personnel: Mitch Kessler: saxophone; John Esposito: piano; Ira Coleman: bass; Peter O'Brien: drums.