"At this point, I prefer space and beauty over noise and volume," says Nuscope Recordings producer and frontman Russell Summers. It's a bold statement, considering that much of what is called free improvisation is modeled on the "fire music" of the '60s. "Don't get me wrong," Russell is quick to add, "There was a time in which that type of improvisation had a deep influence on my developing musical tastes. It's just not the aesthetic I prefer now and it's not the sort of sound Nuscope fosters."
Over the past 11 years, the Dallas Texas-based label has carved a niche, releasing 22 discs of music whose diverse sound worlds defy simple categorization and blur boundaries with each note and gesture. If labels are to be used, contemporary classical and jazz are often referenced, but they do not tell anything approaching the entire story. On each Nuscope release, the utmost importance is placed on minute detail, giving even the most disparate projects a feeling of consistency. "One reason for that is the mastering engineer," states Summers. Alan Bise met Summers when they both lived in Dallas and Bise returned to his native Cleveland to head the Department of Audio Engineering at the Cleveland Institute of Music. Since then, Bise has become an independent engineer of increasing renown. "He has fantastic ears," Summers marvels. "He's also a classical violinist and, though he doesn't always work with music typical of Nuscope, he has great empathy for it and he's a phenomenal engineer. He has worked on projects where microphones might not have been placed in optimal positions and made them sound much better than they would have."
Nuscope's sonic excellence and Bise's mastering can be heard to stunning effect on Alberto Braida's solo piano disc Talus, one of the latest Nuscope releases. A track such as the luminous "Senz' ombra" is demonstrative of the album's rich timbres and mystical qualities. Low notes and clusters vie with sharp but clear and dynamically contrasted high-frequency aggregates and all is captured with stunning fidelity.
"If you download the high resolution version [88.2/24 bit] of Talus from HDtracks, people with the proper equipment can hear it in very high fidelity," states Summers. He is referring to a website that is similar to iTunes, but on which the files can be procured in higher quality, in keeping with Nuscope's exacting standards. "Even the mp3 files sound pretty good, as they are the high-resolution variety," Summers explains, "But HDtracks has even better encoded alternatives available and the music we release really demands that sort of listening." Another case in point is Starmelodics, another recent Nuscope title. It is one of the piano-centric projects that have played an important part in the label's history, beginning with its first offering, the ecstatic and beautiful Fred Van Hove disc Passing Waves. More recent ventures have included Denman Maroney's Gaga, a group effort with Maroney's hyperpiano at its core. Starmelodics features another innovative pianist, Achim Kaufmann, in collaboration with bassist Mark Dresser and drummer Harris Eisenstadt. Each contributes compositions to the disc that are stylistically indicative while also conforming to the trio's aesthetic. Eisenstadt's "Vancouver," to cite one example, undertakes multiple surprising metric and timbral shifts, but there is a unity to the melodic material and the trio swings through myriad changes and sections with ease and agility. As with Talus, each detail is caught in the finest sound, Eisenstadt's cymbals crystal clear, Dresser's bass full and resonant while each pluck, strike and bend from Kaufmann is immediate.
Summers has spent his life developing his ear for sound and detail. Even before his work as a producer, which began in 1989, he exposed himself to all manner of contemporary music, both improvised and composed. "My parents weren't listening to anything really avant-garde, but they listened to a lot of classical music. Then, when I was working at a record store in Toledo, I had a friend who introduced me to the ECM catalogue. The first ECM release I bought was GaryBurton's Passengers." Indeed, the sublimated energy and quiet beauty associated with much of the Nuscope catalogue is prefigured in Burton's landmark album.
Summers' allegiance to the ECM catalogue and to the hatART sound of the '80s-90s is well documented and his label continues to attest to Manfred Eicher and Werner Uehlinger's influence. Each Nuscope title is presented in the highest quality sound and with careful attention to packaging and liner notes, which come courtesy of noted journalists and musicians. "I think the packaging is so important and that's one reason why I'm disappointed by the decline in CD sales."