Talking to Michael Cuscuna while Nelly's "Hot In Herre" plays on the jukebox is about as strange a dissonance as modern life has to offer. Cuscuna is the head of Mosaic Records and one of the most prolific reissue producers in the business. His work takes him deep inside the tape vaults, far away from the pop ephemera of the present. Since launching Mosaic in 1982 in partnership with the late Charlie Lourie , he has established the label as the yardstick by which all reissuing entities are measured.
Mosaic's stately, black 12x12 box sets are produced in limited editions of 3,000 to 5,000, available via mail order only. They hark back to the era of vinyl, when they were in fact introduced. The look and packaging have remained the same even in the CD age, in part to accommodate the full-size bookletswith exhaustive liner notes, lavish photo spreads, and impeccable discographiesthat come with each set. "No CD packaging could give us a booklet that displays photos that well," Cuscuna insists. "The print also has to be legible, especially if you're over 40!"
Lean economic times forced Mosaic to cease manufacturing vinyl and CD editions of the same sets, although they have continued to release LP-only editions of each Miles Davis box issued by Columbia-Legacy in the past several years. The Complete Live at the Blackhawk is next; The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions will follow.
Mosaic started in San Diego but has long been based in Stamford, Conn., Cuscuna's old hometown. There are seven people on staff, including Scott Wenzel, the Grammy-nominated producer, and Frank Putsey, who handles most of the business side. Putsey also oversees True Blue Music, a mail-order catalog that points customers toward the most worthwhile reissues on the market.
While Cuscuna has produced a slew of reissues for Columbia and also for Impulse!, his steady employer (besides Mosaic) is Blue Note Records, which became half-owner of Mosaic roughly five years ago. Cuscuna has overseen the Blue Note vaults since the label re-launched in 1985, under Bruce Lundvall's (2003 Beacons in Jazz Award Winner) leadership. This has enabled him to funnel projects to Mosaic that don't work quite so well as single-disc Blue Note reissues. Rather than release, say, Horace Parlan's or Stanley Turrentine's Blue Notes in a slow trickle over many years, Cuscuna seized the opportunity to put them out all at once, in deluxe, definitive editions. Conversely, Mosaic's Herbie Nichols box received such favorable responses that Blue Note decided to repackage it as a three-disc cube for the retail market. (Stan Getz's Roost recordings were dealt with similarly.) This way, important archival material has a chance to remain in print.
It is precisely this logic that led to the introduction, earlier this year, of the Mosaic Select series. These are standard-size, three-CD cubes that begin as mail-order exclusives and then transition to retail, at a slightly higher price, after one year. Because Selects are cheaper to produce than full boxes, Mosaic is able to pass the savings on to customers. The first two Selects brought to light long-unavailable works by Grachan Moncur III and Carmell Jones. Upcoming editions will focus on Bennie Green (the trombonist), Randy Weston, John Patton, and Paul Chambers.
In the full-size department, Mosaic is finalizing a Bunny Berigan box and a Roy Eldridge Verve box, as well as a Gerry Mulligan Concert Band box that Cuscuna has been trying to realize for 21 years. (Licensing and locating masters can be extremely difficult.) The very first Mosaic boxes were the Monk and Albert Ammons/Meade Lux Lewis Blue Notes and the complete Gerry Mulligan/Chet Baker on Pacific Jazz. "When we started there was virtually no jazz recording industry," Cuscuna bluntly remarks. "Only Fantasy was doing reissues. So we really had our pick of stuff."
Since then, Mosaic's efforts have run the gamut from vocal and early jazz, to big band, to the headiest of the Blue Note avant-garde. Much of it would have otherwise remained buried in the vaults, or at least been very difficult to find. That's certainly true of offbeat treasures like the Jimmy Giuffre Capitol and Atlantic Recordings, or the complete Tristano/ Konitz/Marsh Atlantics, or the Sam Rivers, Andrew Hill, Thad Jones, and Elvin Jones Blue Notes.
Mosaic's work requires tenacity and an appreciation of the high stakes involved. "You have to put in every effort on every project," Cuscuna says, "because this might be the last time it ever gets worked on. You have to read every discography like a prosecuting attorney. You have to question everything, because so many mistakes get handed down."