The music doesn't sound like anything you've heard before. The art and packaging doesn't look like other CDs either. And that's exactly the point. Since 1995, founder and executive producer Robert Rusch has been recording and releasing music on his label CIMP - Creative Improvised Music Projects - with a personal touch.
"I put my stamp on it by not putting my stamp on it," says Rusch. He is referring to CIMP's audio aesthetic of recording without compression of the signals, "fixes" while mixing, or cuts and pastes of musical takes. The finished product sounds as much like being at the session as is possible in recording. And Rusch guarantees it with a personal written endorsement of each session.
CIMP came about while Rusch was working for the Cadence label and wanted to record new music, which Cadence did not do. He has been dedicated to improvised music for decades as a drummer, a former writer-critic, and a record label executive. CIMP reflects the opinions about music that he developed during those years. Sessions are generally, but not always, acoustic. Some feature more traditional jazz instrumentation and configurations, while many have experimental groupings of players and stretch forms. But they all have one thing in common - a high level of musicianship.
Rusch's son, Marc Rusch, records each session live to two tracks. The expansive sound available on a CD without compression captures almost the full dynamic range of the instruments and more closely matches what was played. "[Standard] recordings are basically exercises in distortion," says Rusch, because the engineer and producer affect the recording's dynamics and its ultimate sound.
Rusch intends each CD to be like a personal concert, which makes the recording challenging to the musicians and to the listener. "It really presents what the music is, the moment you were recording it," says trombonist Steve Swell, who has done more than a dozen CIMP sessions. The recordings reward those who approach them open-mindedly and attentively. They are not meant for background music but for active listening.
Despite the challenges, this approach is working for CIMP. By the end of 2003, they will have released about 200 CDs total - an average of about 25 per year. And Rusch keeps each release in print at all times. CIMP is not a money-making venture, but is close to being self-sufficient according to Rusch. "It's a labor of love," he says.
And the labor, and label, is a family operation. In addition to his son as engineer, his daughter Kara Rusch creates all the original cover art, as inspired by the session. And his wife Susan Rusch provides "hospitality" for the musicians, which includes preparing food two days ahead of musicians' arrivals and throughout the two-day recording period. Hillary Ryan completes the CIMP team and does graphic layout and typesetting for the booklets. Rusch estimates that he spends the equivalent of two months each year just in the recording sessions.
The musicians also have to be dedicated, not only because of the demanding performances necessitated by CIMP's no-edits approach, but also because the Spirit Room recording studio is located in Redwood, New York, some 300 miles from the City. Bassist Dominic Duval remembers driving through an ice storm in February 1996 to his first CIMP recording. He said it took nearly two days, his car went off the road and he had to rent a replacement, and he got lost. But Duval continued to go back and has now done nearly 30 sessions with CIMP.
"It's the kind of place you go to take a vacation, but you're working," Duval says. He also enjoys the recording process, saying it reminds him of the way things were done when he was a kid. And he feels the CIMP crew always treats the musicians like family. Duval is one of the many frequent CIMP collaborators, along with notables like drummers Kevin Norton, Lou Grassi, and Jay Rosen; violinist Billy Bang; saxophonists Andrew Lamb, Joe McPhee, Alex Harding, and the late Frank Lowe; and trombonist Swell.
Grassi, who has appeared on about 20 CIMP sessions, agrees that the musicians are always treated well by CIMP. "[They] are doing a great job, and have been very supportive of my work and dozens of others who wouldn't be documented otherwise," he says.
This commitment to supporting unknown music, as Grassi says, is also a part of the CIMP aesthetic. "I've recorded things I never thought I would've recorded," says Rusch, who asserts that he tries to avoid repetition on the label. Despite the presence of many of the same musicians on the recordings, they are all different projects, and Rusch has turned some artists away who have wanted to record something too similar to their previous work. "It's a temptation to do something that worked again," Rusch says, but doing so would go against the CIMP mission.