For a genre with as small a market share as jazz, there are no end to labels big and small peddling artists known and unknown. As the big three become more staid and conservative, it is up to small independent outfits to make sure of some level of vibrancy and innovation.
It is a difficult road, with little opportunity for financial success. So these labels plug away releasing material fitfully purely for the satisfaction of a job well done and an extension on the lifespan of the music.
Jan Strom, founder of Ayler Records, has managed to make what originally was a one-off project and what remains a hobby into an energetic business venture. "Some guys play golf, I spend my money on making free jazz records," he quips.
He helps book a club in Stockholm called the Glenn Miller Cafe. He tries to bring over one American group a year. Saxophonist Noah Howard's group with Bobby Few came in 2000. Afterwards, Howard sent Strom a tape recorded in Chicago in 1997 and asked him to try to get it released. Strom tried to no avail and decided to release it himself. Though he did not intend to start a label, he and his friend 'ke Bjurhamn, a painter, had already created a CD cover for it, foreshadowing the look of the label's catalogue.
Shortly thereafter, drummer Sunny Murray and saxophonist Arthur Doyle came to play at the Glenn Miller Cafe. Strom discussed the idea of releasing the concert and Ayler Records was on its way. "We taped them in two different places and then we came up with an agreement and then it started," recounts Strom. "We couldn't stop."
Almost all the releases on the label are live recordings, primarily done in clubs around Sweden, by proponents of the free jazz genre. "We think that free jazz should be recorded live in front of an audience. We do not think we get the best results from 'improved studio material' as we call it. We want it exactly as it was, with all the mistakes, the noises and everything."
The label has served multiple purposes. The promise of recordings-to-be has brought over some American artists like Jemeel Moondoc and William Parker. It has also given Strom the opportunity to support Swedish musicians working in the tradition of improvised music such as Bengt Frippe Nordstr'm. And the label has issued historical recordings of musicians like John Stevens with Mike Osborne, Anders Gahnold with Johnny Dyani, Albert Ayler's classic quartet with Don Cherry, Gary Peacock and Sunny Murray and the label's most ambitious project, a five-CD box set of unreleased Jimmy Lyons live material.
"I don't try to place," explains Strom. "This is a very narrow niche of music anyway. Some people can say we are spread out. We say that the main thing is that we hear this spirit. I could also probably release some mainstream sort of jazz music if I hear this fantastic spirit but that happens most for me when I hear free jazz."
Strom, a consultant for the paper industry by day, is in a good position to evaluate that spirit. At 65, he has been seeing concerts for decades, both in Sweden and on his numerous business trips. Like many other free jazz aficionados, he began listening to bebop but was enamored of the new direction offered by Ornette and Coltrane. He is also a rabid collector of unreleased tapes, his collection of live material numbering over 10,000 items.
The Jimmy Lyons box, released earlier this year, is the culmination of a long project that began with Strom compiling a discography of the saxophonist based on his tape collection. This produced a book available from Ayler Records. In trying to get musicians to contribute, he met reed player Karen Borca and they discussed the idea of a possible release. Borca connected Strom with Ben Young of WKCR who was instrumental in the production process. The box, comprised of material from 1972 to 1985, was a labor of love. "I have been very lucky in a way because Jimmy Lyons has been my big idol for many years," explains Strom.
An ambitious project like this has underscored a problem that independent labels face. Sales of free jazz are usually rather spare and the cost of a box set is usually quite high. The Jimmy Lyons box usually retails for $90-100, which Strom calls "a give-away price." "This was a very special project. It is so expensive and as with most of the productions we have released we are happy if we can recap about 50% of our costs," laments Strom. Making things even more difficult are exchange rates. Ayler is based in Sweden and "'about 85% goes to America. I have very good distribution in America, North Country. The main problem is the falling dollar rates. The dollar is dropping so that is a big problem for business' Our agreement with North Country is in dollars so you can't just say one day we would like to invoice you in Euros instead of dollars and the next week invoice them in dollars again. It doesn't work like that."