The story of record labels devoted to free jazz is largely one of dedicated admirers of the music taking the lead and means of production to disseminate to the world the music they love. Many are well-meaning, committed endeavors that rarely seem to make it past the five year mark. But a few stand out. One such label, celebrating its tenth anniversary, is Eremite Records.
"Eremite started in 1995 basically because of my interest in free jazz, says label head Michael Ehlers. "After college, I started producing some concerts around Amherst. [Saxophonist] Jemeel Moondoc was the first. Eremite evolved from that. It started with me and a friend of mine. He helped me organize, with proposals etc. but he left soon afterwards. We got it together in 1995 and launched it in 1996.
The label name came from an alternate title for the Monk tune "Reflections : "Portrait Of An Eremite . The logo is an image of a be-hooded Joe McPhee playing soprano saxophone. The first four releases were by Moondoc, a loft-era veteran, plus early releases by Ellery Eskelin/Andrea Parkins, Gregg Bendian and saxophonist Assif Tsahar (in his debut). The label name, logo and initial batch of releases showed that Eremite was a label that wasn't going to shy away from adventurous new music.
"When I started the label, I had a pretty good idea of what I wanted to do. At that time, I really admired labels like Black Saint, and I still do, who would work with musicians from so many schemes within the creative music spectrum. Those first four Eremite releases were pretty diverse. But then I decided to settle more into a particular zone and started focusing on the American free jazz scene.
It was American free jazz with a little history attached. Ehler's fascination with the survivors of the free jazz scene of the '60s and '70s led to his working with neglected and underrecorded - at that time - members of that scene: drummers Sunny Murray and Denis Charles, saxophonists Sabir Mateen and Moondoc, trumpeter Raphe Malik, bassists Alan Silva and William Parker. Eremite has produced some of the most significant records in these players' discographies.
Ehlers also had an interest in the European free jazz scene that grew from the inspiration of those American players. German saxophonist Peter Brötzmann, one of that music's most important and innovative players, is represented by two Eremite recordings, one of which, Never Too Late But Always Too Early, is essential. Additionally, when Brötzmann decided to revive his BR'- vinyl record label (dormant since 1968), Ehlers helped nurse the enterprise along. Two releases are now available: the saxophonist's duet with classic jazz drummer Walter Perkins, The Ink Is Gone and a set of duets with Brotzmann's '70s partner, Dutch drummer Han Bennink, Still Quite Popular After All These Years.
Many Eremites sport black and white images on the cover, frequently a portrait of the artist. Ehlers has tried to give Eremite releases a "look but this is not something that's set in stone. If an artist has a preference for a certain accompanying visual, Ehlers will go with that artist's visions.
"ESP was, of course an inspiration. I really like the spare documentary style of their covers. But I didn't want to throw some retro-looking shit out there. Basically I'm just looking for good black and white jazz documentary-style photography. There are certain photographers I've worked with that I'd love to use all the time, if I had the money. There's a photographer named Charlie Gross, he did the photography for Denis Charles' Captain Of The Deep and Jemeel Moondoc's Revolt Of The Negro Lawn Jockeys and several others. It was a gas to work with Jacques Bisceglia [on the Alan Silva Treasure Box]. He was the 'B' in BYG.
Eremite has also done a pair of reissues. They re-released Noah Howard's 1973 classic Patterns. Ehlers was able to couple it with a legendary 20 minute unreleased track recorded for French Mercury, "A Message To South Africa . The other is William Parker's historic first release as a leader from 1979, Through Acceptance Of The Mystery Peace. Waiting in the wings is free jazz/funk classic, Drum Dance To The Motherland, by Philadelphia vibraphonist Khan Jamal, a '70s recording originally on the impossible-to-find Dogtown label.
Ehlers has several new releases in preparation. "There will be two volumes of Sunny Murray recordings from his 2004 American tour with players like Dave Burrell, Sabir Mateen and Oluyemi Thomas. I also have a double disc set of saxophonist Fred Anderson with William Parker and Hamid Drake.