For the Record 

Local labels offer a home for jazz musicians

Local labels offer a home for jazz musicians

As the city’s music scene thrives, conditions continue to improve for Nashville’s jazz musicians: There are more clubs featuring live jazz than ever before; at least three area radio stations play recordings by local performers; and the national media have spotlighted releases by such area jazz artists as Bela Fleck & the Flecktones and Beegie Adair.

Until recently, the only ingredient missing was the presence of recording outlets, companies providing opportunities for local jazz musicians to chronicle their work. While neither Compass Records nor Green Hill Records concentrates exclusively on jazz, both labels have released several first-rate recordings in the idiom and are currently planning upcoming jazz releases. Despite differences in marketing strategies and company philosophy, Compass, which started in 1995, and Green Hill, which celebrates its fifth anniversary next April, are united in a critical manner: Each gears its A&R decisions toward satisfying the appetites of jazz fans.

Compass founder and head Allison Brown characterizes her label as “artist-driven.” That is to say, she’s devoted to developing relationships with musicians she believes in. At the same time, Brown is pragmatic about her enterprise. “We don’t release anything we can’t market,” she says, “and we look for artists who are willing to enter into a partnership with us.”

Brown, a world-class banjoist who has made several records for Vanguard, has issued her own critically praised session on Compass, Out of the Blue. The label’s catalogue includes 35 other releases, ranging from world music to bluegrass.

As Brown points out, Compass’ jazz musicians not only exemplify her vision for the company, they’re also superb performers. The roster includes bassist Victor Wooten, whose most recent Compass effort, What Did He Say, was a top selection in this year’s DownBeat Critics Poll.

Green Hill has a similar commitment to quality, but its musical focus is a little more conservative. “We record artists whose music is accessible,” says label vice president and general manager Greg Howard. “We’ve done dates in various genres, but all our jazz dates have been instrumental; some are big band, others are solo piano.”

Pianist Beegie Adair has been Green Hill’s biggest seller; both her current set devoted to Nat “King” Cole’s music and her prior effort featuring Frank Sinatra material not only drew rave reviews, they also earned Green Hill national radio and press attention. Other prime label signings include pianist David Hamilton, guitarist Jack Jezzro, tenor saxophonist Denis Solee, composer/pianist David Huntsinger, and multi-reed soloist Sam Levine.

While Compass has hooked into a system of independent distribution and promotion, Green Hill takes a different approach to the critical issue of getting its music to the public. “We concentrate on non-traditional outlets,” says marketing director Gregory Byerline. “We’ve found specialty shops, gift shops, and museums are the best places to reach many of the people who buy Green Hill releases.”

Both labels have ambitious plans for the new year and beyond. Brown touts upcoming releases from Victor Wooten and from New Orleans group Astral Project, the latter of which should be available next April. In addition, Compass has just issued a date featuring solo pianist John R. Burr.

Green Hill has a Christmas project in the works with Adair, while another session pairing her with saxophonist Solee is designed to tap into the current swing mania. The label’s latest release is Swing Shift by violinist Antoine Silverman, who was based in Nashville for several years but has now relocated to New York. Cinema Sax, a new set from Levine, is due in January.

Each company is seeking new artists, albeit with some reservations. “There are a lot of great players in town,” says Brown. “We [believe] there [is] a deep appreciation of jazz here, and we’re always looking for new acts and artists, though we’re constantly evaluating who can best fit into our philosophy.”

As the city’s jazz profile grows ever larger, labels like Green Hill and Compass will become even more important. As long as the labels continue operating, Nashville’s jazz scene will develop, and the number of musicians and venues will also expand—thereby expanding the definition of what jazz can be in a country-music town.

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