Over three decades and 300 releases, HatHut has been on top of not just the changing styles in improvised music - what the label has termed "music of the future" - but innovative ways to market the fluctuating form. From the red-box LP covers to the orange-spined CD sleeves and under the rubrics hatMUSICS, hatART, hatOLOGY, hat[now]ART and hatNOIR, Hat has built a reputation for aesthetic daring and professional production.
HatHut was founded by Werner Uehlinger to document the work of then young gun saxophonist Joe McPhee; the 1975 issue of his Black Magic Man was HatHut A. On a business trip from his home in Switzerland, Uehlinger had picked up some of McPhee's albums and the two met at CJR Records founder Craig Johnson's home in West Park, NY. "Werner liked the music and offered to release a recording," McPhee remembered. "This was the first of what eventually became the HatHut Letter series' [with] beautifully original cover art by Klaus Baumgartner and wonderful packaging."
After several McPhee releases, Uehlinger branched out to begin documenting more of the "new jazz" coming in the wake of the '60s revolution. "I do not recall what was in the back of some decisions 30 years ago," he recalled. "I recall that after the fourth LP of Joe McPhee, a French critic wrote me a letter with the remark 'either you change the name of the label to "Joe McPhee Records" or you add other people.' I added other people." Soon the label was boasting titles by jazz innovators Anthony Braxton, Steve Lacy and Cecil Taylor, a new generation of players like Ellery Eskelin, Myra Melford, Matthew Shipp and John Zorn and documenting the European jazz scene with releases by Franz Koglmann, Misha Mengelberg, Fritz Hauser, Urs Leimgruber and others.
"HatHut has documented an extraordinary time in the music we call 'jazz' and improvised music," McPhee said. "In my opinion, HatHut will be seen historically as one of the most vitally important independent labels, in the preservation of a golden period of this art form."
Beyond jazz, Hat became an important outlet for composers in the classical tradition. Recordings of works by John Cage, Morton Feldman and Cornelius Cardew suggested a philosophy that defied labeling. When the short-lived hatNOIR imprint appeared with recordings by Taku Sugimoto, Loren Connors and Jim O'Rourke, it was clear that Uehlinger and company weren't simply interested in jazz so much as forward-looking musicians.
HatHut flourished in no small part due to funding from the Swiss Bank Corporation, a relationship that ended in December, 2000. Since then, Uehlinger has fostered smaller partnerships to release works by individual artists, finding sponsors for recordings by Eskelin, Anthony Ortega, Marc Copland and Guillermo Gregorio. The label also dropped its back catalogue (more recently reissuing select titles) and limited all new runs to 3,000 copies. Uehlinger, however, is less than optimistic about selling records in the current market.
"The stores are more and more operated by computers and not people anymore," he said. "People have lost curiosity and buy only what has been heavily pushed. Most people are stressed and they have no interest to listen to 'the music of the future', which is too difficult for them."
Uehlinger continues to look to the future, or at least the cutting edge, and while the HatNOIR imprint has been discontinued the label is still fostering music outside the jazz idiom. Recent releases by sound artists eRikm and Fennesz and the trio Trapist (Martin Brandlmayr, Martin Siewert and Joe Williamson) represent a new generation of improvisers. And a bold release schedule for 2005 shows the label has no plans to slow during its 30th year. This month will see new releases by Dieter Ammann and Stefan Wolpe. Slated for March is a David Liebman/Ellery Eskelin project with Tony Marino and Jim Black and Daniele D'Agaro with Jeb Bishop, Kent Kessler and Robert Barry.
Coming later in the year are a Braxton Duke Ellington project (following his popular Charlie Parker project), the first official release of 1966 Albert Ayler dates from Stockholm and Berlin, new titles by Max Nagl, John Law, new recordings of Ives and Cage and reissues of Pauline Oliveros' The Roots of the Moment and David Murray's 3D Family.
In 2006, Hat will at last reissue the first title on the label, McPhee's Black Magic, broadcast in 1971 as a part of WBAI's Free Music Store in New York City. It is a reminder of what inspired the label's founding, what Uehlinger called the "starting point" of his involvement in the record industry. It might also hint at changes in the industry over three decades and the efforts of one label to keep current with the fluidity of improvised music.