We are all saddened by the abrupt news that formidable keyboardist and fusion alchemist Joe Zawinul -- best known for his work with Miles Davis and for founding the groundbreaking fusion ensemble Weather Report -- has passed away Tuesday in Vienna, Austria at the age of 75. Here is the latest from Pitchfork Media.
(We're not sure who the unidentified lead rapper is, but you can spot Mr. W's disembodied head bobbing right behind him. Yikes. For a more serious side of David, check out his latest CD Spinning The Circle.)
Several writers have been talking in the blogs lately about the "stinginess" of record companies when it comes to sending promos to the press (Tom Hull, Scratch My Brain and be.jazz). Many small jazz labels have stopped sending jewel cases or Digipaks to reviewers in favor of CDs in slimline cases, wallets or envelopes. There is even a movement afoot to stop sending promos altogether while making the music and artwork available to writers digitally.
This is a sensitive issue for all concerned. We know that writers are not paid nearly enough (or at all) for the good work that they do, and of course everyone associated with jazz is struggling these days. And before all the wailing starts, let me just say up-front that if a writer wants a full Digipak of a particular title, just let us know and we'll send it to you. We love you, and we want you to have the real deal if it is something that seriously interests you and you want to write about it.
For 8 years Cryptogramophone dutifully sent full Digipaks to writers to show off our beautiful packages, and reward reviewers for their diligence. However, 500 digipaks (which is about how many we send to radio and press) is about 1/4 of our average sales on a title these days, and most of these end up on Amazon and in the used bins before a title is even released. Since Amazon is now our biggest customer, we’re just shooting ourselves in the foot by giving away so many finished Digipaks.
Then there is the issue of cost. The wallets we send out cost about a quarter apiece, as opposed to the Digipaks which can cost as much as $1 or more. It also costs twice as much in postage to send full packages as it does to send CDs without the Digipaks. With six releases annually, that's a cost of about $5,000 per year. With the loss of retail outlets like Tower, and sales down 20% each year for the last three years, independent jazz labels have to find ways to cut back just to keep our heads above water. We really can't afford to make beautiful, expensive packages anymore, but we love them, and we're reluctant to let go of the dream.
And finally, we know our music isn't for everyone. Someone who loves a Nels Cline CD, may not love a Myra Melford or Bennie Maupin title, so we know that even the most responsible writer will trade-in some of our promos. Plus, our percentage of reviews vs. CDs sent is about 5%. So, what's the sense in sending out full CDs when most of them will just be resold, thereby wiping out two sales for every CD we give away (the sale we lost, and the CD we can't sell), while having to pay $5,000 per year for the privilege!
By now writers should know that Cryptogramophone is committed to beautiful (and expensive) packaging as well as great music. They should also know that we will always send a finished copy to a writer if they ask for it. We understand the writer’s perspective on this issue, and hope they will try to understand ours. We will never deny a legitimate reviewer access to our Digipaks if they ask for it. It’s kind of like sex. We’ll even give it up on a first date, but you have to ask!
This is the first in a series of blog posts to document a three day recording session by the great Bennie Maupin Quartet in Warsaw, Poland, September 20-22, 2007. This recording, tentatively called Vital Signs, will be released on Cryptogramophone Records in Spring, 2008. Bennie arrived in Poland a week ago for concerts with his quartet in Zakopane, Poland. The members of his quartet are Michal Tokaj - piano, Michal Baransky - bass, and Lukaz Zyta - drums. Bennie has been working with these top-notch players for several years, and they are very much in demand in Poland. Bennie specifically wanted to record with these musicians because of the musical rapport he feels with them.
The recording sessions are taking place at a wonderful studio in Warsaw called Sound and More. This studio was designed by the Swedish acoustician and studio designer Ingemar Ohlsson of Audio Data Lab, and is very well suited to the needs of this recording. There are 4 rooms for tracking, 2 main rooms for piano and woodwinds, a medium sized drum room, and a smaller iso booth for the bass. We've rented the best piano in Poland, a 9' Hamburg Steinway Grand. One interesting feature of this studio is the movable wall that divides the two main rooms. The console is an old Neve board originally from Sony studios in Hollywood, and the microphone selection here is very impressive. The recording engineer is Sebastian Witkowski, and he has done a great job of micing and balancing the instruments. All is set to make a great sounding recording. It's really an honor to be in Poland with these great musicians, and to be associated with this project. Come back later for more updates! - Jeff Gauthier
We’re halfway through the second day of the “Vital Signs” recording sessions with woodwind great Bennie Maupin and his Polish quartet. We’re working at a wonderful studio in Warsaw with a brilliant young engineer named Sebastian Witkowski. He’s getting really great sounds on all of Bennie’s instruments. So far Bennie has played his signature bass clarinet on “Escondido,” alto flute on pianist Michal Tokaj’s “Tears,” tenor saxophone on Bennie’s “Inner Sky” and soprano saxophone on a surprising remake of Bennie’s old tune “The Jewel in the Lotus.” This last piece is of course the title track of his 25 year-old ECM recording of the same name, which has just been re-released on CD for the first time. I can’t help but think that Bennie’s recent CD Penumbra on Cryptogramophone had a little something to do with the long overdue re-release of this true classic. The new version of TJITL is more rhythmic and dynamic than the original, which has a nice spacious feel to it. Right now we are about to start recording another of Bennie’s pieces called “Early Reflections,” also on soprano sax. Like many of Bennie’s titles, this one has several meanings, as early reflections has a specific meaning in acoustical terms, as well as personal significance for Bennie, who wakes up at 5AM every morning to meditate and chant. As you can see this recording is going to be a mixture of some of Bennie’s classic material, recent pieces his band has been playing for a while, and new tunes that Bennie is showing them for the first time in the studio.
I must say that I’m very excited about this recording, and things are going remarkably well. Bennie sounds great on all his instruments, and his young Polish band of Michal Tokaj on piano, Michal Baranski on bass, and Lukaz Zyta on drums are all amazing musicians. They really have a great rapport with each other. It was a bit of a risk to travel to a foreign country, work with an unknown (to us) sound engineer in an unknown studio, but so far all of our risks have been rewarded with great results. I can’t wait for people to hear this music in the Spring of 2008.
I’ll have a couple of more reports from Warsaw in the coming days as things progress. Thanks for checking in on us. - Jeff Gauthier
Yesterday was the mid-point of Cryptogramophone’s recording sessions with Bennie Maupin and his Polish Quartet in Warsaw. Please see my previous posts below to get a feeling about where we’ve been and where we’re going. Last night, after recording a piece of Bennie’s entitled “Early Reflections,” we took a break so Bennie could put the finishing touches on a new piece called “Prophet's Motives,” written for the late writer, painter, filmmaker, and philosopher Richard Prophet Jennings, whose paintings have graced such jazz album covers as Eric Dolphy’s Out There and Outward Bound.
“Prophet's Motives” was quite challenging for the musicians, especially having to learn the complicated melodies on the spot. As our studio finishing time of 8PM was approaching and the musicians were still learning the music, Sebastian, our engineer began to worry we wouldn’t have time to record anything. However, at about 7:30 we started rolling tape (so to speak), and by 8PM, we had a burning take that sounded like these guys had been performing this music for years. (See exhausted musicians below)
Today (Saturday) is the final day of recording, and we are welcoming a special guest, a talented and unique singer named Hania Chowaniec-Rybka who specializes in folk music of the Polish Highlands, music that has influenced many musicians including the Polish composer Karol Szymanowski. Hania has an incredibly expressive voice with a wide range that sparkles in the high end, and has a very warm quality in the lower register. Bennie's group played some concerts with her in Zakopane, a small town in the mountains about 5 hours from Warsaw, and they had such a deep connection, that he asked her to come sit in on some tunes for this session.
However, since the band was here early and Hania hadn’t arrived yet, I suggested that they try another tversion of “The Jewel in the Lotus” since that was the first tune we started with on Thursday, and everybody was so much more in the groove now. This turned out to be a great idea since this take really had some great energy, and Bennie played his ass off.
Now we’re recording a more recent piece of Bennie’s called “Atma.” Atma is the name of the house in the Highlands where Szymanowski lived and wrote most of his music. Atma also means soul in Sanskrit. Hania’s voice sounds incredible on this piece, lending an earthy, modal quality to the improvisations, with her unique embellishments and folksy improvisations. What a great instrument she has! Check out this clip on Youtube of Hania with Bennie's Quartet at a recent concert in Zakopane, Poland.
Thanks for checking in. Come back later for more!
The recordings sessions for Bennie Maupin’s new CD on Cryptogramophone are over, and I must say they have been some of the most inspiring experiences of my life. What an honor to be in the presence of such great musicians, and such inspired music-making.
As things started to wind down, everyone relaxed a bit, and began to let their guards down. When I mentioned to Bennie that Sunday would be John Coltrane’s birthday (which he knew of course), he started opening up and sharing some stories I had never heard before. For instance, he used to jam frequently at a home in Detroit where Coltrane would also jam whenever he was in town. Bennie met and played with Coltrane many times in this way, and each time he felt he learned something, and came away with a new way of looking at music.
Bennie also said that he had gone to high school with Alice Coltrane (then Alice McCloud), and that she had been one of his primary music teachers. Bennie says that he feels the influence and presence of John Coltrane every time he picks up the saxophone, and that it was no coincidence that these recording sessions were scheduled around Coltrane’s birthday.
While the influence of Coltrane is undeniable, Maupin is probably more closely identified with Eric Dolphy, as the most accomplished living exponent of the bass clarinet. Bennie told me this week about an upcoming project for ECM that will be a tribute to Dolphy on what would have been his 80th birthday. That project will also include James Newton, Billy Hart, Darek Oles, and Jay Hoggard.
Our own recording sessions ended on an inspiring note, with a piece called “The Spirits of Tatras,” which featured Bennie’s Polish Quartet and singer Hania Chowaniec-Rybka. I’m hoping that this piece will end the CD, as it trails off with some beautiful breathy overtones on the alto flute. After that piece was finished, we all shared a glass of wine and toasted each other, while Bennie expressed his gratitude to the musicians and the production staff for what he called, “a very important musical experience.”
Thanks to everyone who has followed these blog posts. Thanks also to everyone at Sound and More recording studio in Warsaw. It has been a great honor to have been associated with this project. I have come away full of inspiration, and respect for all of these musicians, and especially for one of the living masters of creative improvised music, Mr. Bennie Maupin. –Jeff Gauthier