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Record Label Profiles

Mosaic Records: Making Jazz History

By Published: December 23, 2013
Cuscuna also had another very specific motivation in putting out retrospective box sets from the Blue Note vaults. "I had found 30 minutes of unissued Thelonious Monk, but the language of the day was 40 minute LPs, so it was too little to put out as an LP. But this was some of the most important stuff I had ever found. And then it dawned on me that Blue Note had put out their Thelonious Monk records from the 78 era in a way that was all scrambled up over three LPs. There was with a master take on one LP and an alternate take on another LP, and all the sessions were mixed up, not in any order. And so, I thought, the way I'd love to hear this stuff would be in chronological order by session and then chronological order within the session, with all the alternate takes, all the unissued takes in one comprehensive set. And I mapped it out, and those Monk recordings would make a perfect four-LP set, unravelling everything and retransferring it, and making the sound absolutely great. I gradually became so obsessed with this idea that I called Charlie around midnight one night, and I told him I'd costed it all out, and I thought we could make our own label—a business operation of it—if we just sold limited editions by direct mail. We wouldn't have to deal with distributors or stores. The next morning, he came over, and I called a bunch of people to confirm my cost measures, and it all made sense. So for the next three weeks, we were hoping Capital would turn our proposal down, and eventually they did. And that was how Mosaic was born."

Cuscuna's original cost models actually turned out to be a bit optimistic, but this didn't really matter. "The way I had charted it out, I figured the Monk set with a limited edition of 5,000 copies would sell out in 18 months. Of course, it actually took about seven years. But that notwithstanding, we set out on the right course anyway, and we're just proud of the legacy that we created."

There have been bumps in the road along the way. "We had a nice ascent for a while, and then other things came up. One of the weirdest things was when Columbia put out the complete recordings of [blues guitarist] Robert Johnson
Robert Johnson
Robert Johnson
1911 - 1938
vocalist
. It was only two CDs, but they packaged it in a box with a booklet, and it started to sell in unprecedented numbers. In the first year it was like 150,000, and it ended up reaching 300,000. Then the word spread around the industry: box sets sell." This had a distinct downside for Mosaic. "For the next five years we had a hard time getting labels to license stuff to us. Someone in the licensing department would say, 'oh, a box set? Well, we might want to do that ourselves.' Then when the retail business started to tank, suddenly we were able to get stuff again. So, it's a roller coaster. You just ride it. You just brace yourself and hope for the best."

Outstanding examples from the Mosaic catalog come to mind easily for Cuscuna. "There are two categories of sets that are milestones in my mind. One is a very small category of artists like Tina Brooks
Tina Brooks
Tina Brooks
1932 - 1974
sax, tenor
and Herbie Nichols
Herbie Nichols
Herbie Nichols
1919 - 1963
piano
. By approaching their work with the box-set treatment—with in-depth research and a lot of unissued material—we were able to call an incredible amount of attention to two major artists that had earlier been marginal in terms of fame and recognition. One thing I learned when I started doing reissues is that, for the most part, you can't rewrite history. An album will only do as well proportionally as it did when it was originally released. You can put out Lee Morgan
Lee Morgan
Lee Morgan
1938 - 1972
trumpet
's Sidewinder, and it'll sell like crazy. Put out Lee Morgan's Search for the New Land, and it'll sell OK although it'll get great reviews. But with Tina Brooks and Herbie Nichols, we were able to rewrite history and make them more important. It was especially gratifying with Herbie Nichols. We were able to get so much unissued stuff out, and a lot of musicians—like Roswell Rudd
Roswell Rudd
Roswell Rudd
b.1935
trombone
, Geri Allen
Geri Allen
Geri Allen
b.1957
piano
, Ben Allison
Ben Allison
Ben Allison
b.1966
bass, acoustic
, and Frank Kimbrough
Frank Kimbrough
Frank Kimbrough
b.1956
piano
—started recording a lot of this newly discovered material and really getting him in circulation. It was really gratifying to work with the past and to have an effect upon the present musically and to have an effect on the historical positioning of those artists. That for me that is the most meaningful part of Mosaic."


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