"It's gotta be done right, Art of Life frontman Paul G. Kohler says matter-of-factly. His is a voice that exudes neither superfluous zeal nor unnecessary self-importance. "It has to sound good, that's all. His label has been run along similarly stringent lines; Kohler might just as soon put out a reissue as drop a new session and his catalog of 21 releases is just about evenly split between resurrected gems and fresh material, but every item is tasty and provocatively fun.
It all began with a reissue of pianist Gordon Beck's Experiments with Pops, re-released as the first item on Art of Life in 2001. Kohler had discovered Beck and his large body of work back in the early '80s and the need to bring this exceptional musician's accomplishments to a wider audience became too pressing to ignore. "I learned basic HTML and I created a website devoted to Gordon's workI took a few days, staying up all night, typing in track lists, uploading graphics and scanning in artwork for the records...
Someone brought the site to Beck's attention, the result being that Beck and Kohler struck up a correspondence which ultimately led to the licensing and reissue of the fantastic historical document. What a thrill it is to hear Beck, Jeff Clyne, John McLaughlin and Tony Oxley rip through tunes like "Norwegian Wood , "Monday, Monday and "Good Vibrations , making them sound fresh and affording a rare chance to hear Oxley in time-drumming mode!
There have been five other Beck releases so far, both reissued and new, with more on the way. However, an equally substantial part of the Art of Life catalog is devoted to the guitar wizardry of Lenny Breau. "He was a genius, Kohler's voice becomes just the slightest bit wistful. "He's probably my favorite guitarist and it's only too bad he's not with us anymore. I'm going to do everything I can to make sure such a phenomenal talent isn't forgotten, that's for sure! Talent doesn't really begin to cover Breau's fancy fretwork; fusing jazz and country with a frightening and exhilarating ease and dexterity. The highlight so far has certainly been The Complete Living Room Tapes, Breau stretching out in duo with clarinetist Brad Terry and in stunning solo flights.
Kohler speaks in vague terms of possible Breau releases in the future, but his attention is clearly on more immediate projects. The label has gone from strength to strength, notable among recent releases being Eddie Gomez and Mark Kramer's Art of the Heart. Comparisons with Bill Evans' '70s work, when Gomez occupied the bass chair, are almost unavoidable, but there's a lot more revolving on the Gomez/Kramer axis than simple homage. While Art of the Heart comprises mainly '30s and '40s popular ballads and romance numbers, the treatment they receive is both introspective and satisfying, from a sonic as well as technical vantagepoint. Much of Gomez' arco work is set a bit back in the mix, lushly reverbed, with Kramer's rich pianism dynamically but realistically presented. "I have an ear for pianists, Kohler says and his love for the instrument is readily apparent on this release, as the balance is true to life.
Kohler is quick to point out, however, that the duo shouldn't be pigeonholed. "They have two more discs in the can and ready to go. One has a more classical feel to it and the other one features very modern compositions all of which are composed by Gomez and Kramer.
Many of Art of Life's releases fall into what might be dubbed a post-bop vein and the label's upcoming release schedule does little to suggest any huge changes in musical presentation. The second half of 2006 will see another reissue from guitar virtuoso Joe Diorio, a new recording by Stephen D. Anderson presenting solo guitar interpretations of Bill Evans' music and a new Bob Mintzer Quartet recording. It's in this, though, that the label truly shines; the mixture of old and new, of homage and innovation, keeps Art of Life releases vital. Whether it be the revelations afforded by some early Gordon Beck playing in Tubby Hayes' 1965 group, the elegiac freedom throughout Gary Husband's astonishing solo piano interpretations of Allan Holdsworth's music or the "third-stream leanings of the Ron Thomas trio, the label simply refuses easy categorization. "I do want to release some classical music at some pointfairly modern classical music. Ron Thomas has a whole bunch of things... and here the enthusiasm in Kohler's voice demonstrates his sincerity. Each release has shown integrity and with Kohler at the helm, the label is sure to continue providing great music, both to lovers of jazz and to those who look for the challenges inherent in the music's history and development.