If I hear someone I like...I record them, regardless of whether they'll sell.
Gerry Teekens ”
It's mid-December at Systems Two Studios in Brooklyn. Gerry Teekens, founder and head of the Netherlands-based Criss Cross label, is wrapping up one of his semi-annual trips to the States, producing nine recording sessions in less than two weeks ("Criss Cross" is not a reference to the Monk tune, but rather to transoceanic travel). Today's agenda is guitarist Adam Rogers' second CD as a leader, and pianist Edward Simon is in the midst of an up-tempo solo that practically melts the control-room glass. Teekens listens intently and gives an approving nod. His engineer and longtime friend, Max Bolleman, can't contain himself: he takes his hands off the faders and waves them excitedly in the air, like a kid in a candy store. The hours have been long and grueling, but the prevailing sentiment isn't weariness. It's jubilation. Given the talent on Criss Cross' roster, moments like these aren't rare.
Most of Criss Cross' artists are American and relatively young, and Teekens' approach to recruiting them couldn't be simpler: "If I hear someone I like," he says, "I record them, regardless of whether they'll sell." His track record is remarkable: Kenny Garrett, Steve Wilson, Benny Green, Bill Charlap, Chris Potter, Mark Turner, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Orrin Evans, and Seamus Blake are among those who made either their debuts or their earliest recordings for Criss Cross. The label releases between 15 and 20 discs per year; the latest batch includes efforts by Jeremy Pelt, Edward Simon, Conrad Herwig, Mike DiRubbo, and Joel Weiskopf. New releases by Adam Rogers, Alex Sipiagin, One for All, Peter Bernstein, Jesse Van Ruller, and Ryan Kisor are on the horizon.
When Teekens, a drummer and former professor of German, launched the label in 1980, he focused on established but underrated musicians who were passing through Holland. The very first Criss Cross album was Jimmy Raney's Raney '81; outings by Warne Marsh, Kirk Lightsey, and Johnny Coles soon followed. Major players like Kenny Barron, Cedar Walton, Slide Hampton, and Jimmy Knepper also recorded for the label, but Teekens soon began to concentrate on new blood, signing young artists like Brian Lynch and Ralph Moore. "I'd rather record guys who are really eager to play," he says, "than feature big names who have recorded many times already. There's a lot of fire among the younger musicians."
It was in 1984 that Teekens began his regular jaunts to the States, recording at first with Rudy Van Gelder at his famed studio in Englewood Cliffs, NJ. "Rudy's father was from the Netherlands," Teekens points out. "There's even a province there called Gelderland." But in 1990, Max Bolleman - an accomplished engineer, fellow drummer, and former optometrist - began accompanying Teekens on his trips across the pond. The two are now inseparable. "I'm very fond of consistency," Teekens remarks. "If you look at all the old, famous labels, they always worked in the same studio and got the same sound."
Criss Cross' output is nothing if not consistent, yet the label presents a wide spectrum of music - dense, modern writing from Rogers, Sipiagin, and Ralph Peterson, Jr., organ dates featuring Sam Yahel, piano trios led by David Kikoski, soul-drenched excursions from Wycliffe Gordon, and even anomalies like Gary Smulyan's ambitious, Bob Belden-composed Blue Suite. "There are never any restrictions on my dates," Teekens remarks. "I just let the musicians play their music."
Consistency governs Criss Cross packaging as well. The discs have simple cover art, often with a photograph offset by a block of solid color; a booklet with a liner essay and nothing else; and a text-only tray card with track listing, personnel, and recording info. One could say the label's forte is aural, not visual, although its spartan, unchanging design preference over the years has become as distinctive a brand marker as any.
Like all record labels, Criss Cross has to weather a daunting business climate. "America presents problems," Teekens explains, "because contrary to the rest of the world, here you have the consignment principle. So you never know how much you're really selling. In Europe and Japan, when they order records, they pay for them. But in the U.S., when they get something for free in the store, they don't have to push it. They can always give it back; there's no risk." The pitfalls are substantial, but like most people in his position, Teekens is not looking to get rich. "I'm doing this for the music alone," he says. "And as long as the music has some fire and some blood, I'm happy."