Wednesday, August 10, 2011

New faces at famous jazz labels Verve and Blue Note

Does it really matter anymore who runs the so-called major jazz labels? I like to think it does for people like Jose James and Jef Neve, whose gorgeous For All We Know came out on Verve last year. And Ambrose Akinmusire, who made his Blue Note debut in April with When the Heart Emerges Glistening. (What a beautiful title, by the way.)

Herbie Hancock's latest, The Imagine Project, came out on Hancock Records. After decades on ECM, Dave Holland has his own label, Dare2. The elegant pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba, formerly on Blue Note, just released Fe/Faith on his new label, 5Passion. Branford Marsalis has Marsalis Music. The prolific Dave Douglas has Greenleaf. The Saxophone Colossus himself, Sonny Rollins, has his own label, Doxy Records. Anyone reading this could probably name many artists who were formerly with big labels and have either been tossed or have chosen to go out on their own.

Labels probably matter more to jazz fans, who are more likely to hear or read about new releases on Verve or Blue Note, Concord or ECM than self-produced CDs. I'm speaking as a jazz fan when I say that a new appointment at Verve makes me glum, but I'm kind of excited about one at Blue Note.

In late July, David Foster was named the new head of Verve, which is part of the Universal Music Group. Foster has won 15 Grammys and has worked with people like Josh Groban, Michael Buble, and Andrea Bocelli. Not that there's anything wrong with Groban, Buble, and Bocelli, but if I were Melody Gardot, I might start to worry. According to the Hollywood Reporter, "Under Foster, Verve is expected to shift its focus to adult contemporary pop." I can see jazz artists flying through the air like fleas being shaken off a dog.

Blue Note records just tapped Don Was as Chief Creative Officer of Blue Note, now part of EMI. What I'm guessing is a press release (since it contains glowing comments from other EMI honchos) refers to Was's earlier work with Bob Dylan, Iggy Pop, Ziggy Marley, Lucinda Williams, Al Green, and B.B. King. It doesn't mention that Was also produced Kurt Elling's latest, The Gate, for Concord. The Gate was recently named JazzWeek's 2011 Record of the Year. Elling is a jazz singer, arguably the top male jazz singer (jazz singer, period) of our time.

From everything I've read, Elling and his musical collaborator, Laurence Hobgood, both enjoyed working with Was, and the feeling was mutual. Makes me wonder if Elling, who left Blue Note for Concord after Man in the Air (2003), will hop back to Blue Note now that Was is there. And who else Was might attract and welcome.

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