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Accurate Records: Growing Out of Boston

Accurate Records: Growing Out of Boston
Jakob Baekgaard By

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In the age of globalization, when almost every musician churns out his or her own record digitally, the boundary between being a one-man business and a record company is porous. However, while many of the new labels remain dedicated to a small circle of artists, there is also the more rarified example of the musician-based label which takes on a greater responsibility and becomes an outlet for a whole community. This has happened in Los Angeles, where reed-player Vinny Golia and violinist Jeff Gauthier have created their own labels, Nine Winds and Cryptogramophone, which have become proponents of West Coast excellence, releasing a steady stream of outstanding albums, mostly by local artists.

Boston is lucky to have Russ Gershon, saxophonist, composer and leader of the acclaimed Either/Orchestra. Through his label, Accurate Records, Gershon has done a tireless effort of promoting the music of the local scene, building up a brand of musical integrity and adventurousness that has become an emblem of quality for those in the know.

All About Jazz: You founded Accurate Records in 1987. What is the story behind the name and is it possible to define the aesthetics of the label?

Russ Gershon: The name comes from two places. It's a pun, of course, and I love a good pun—which may be the same thing as a bad pun! The word "Accurate" is also close to the beginning of the alphabet, and I knew that as a small label, we'd be put on lists. I figured it wouldn't hurt to be near the top of the list.

I had previous experiences in the early 80s when various rock bands I was in put out their own 45s, which was a common part of the punk "do it yourself" aesthetic. I was also influenced by labels run by Sun Ra and Charles Mingus among other jazz DIY labels, many of which I had been exposed to when I was working at my college radio station as the jazz director, and opening up the incoming mail.

After the Either/Orchestra had been together for almost a year, I recorded the band live and also in the studio [in July 1986]. The tapes struck me as worthy of release, so I took steps to mix, sequence, master and create the LP cover design for Dial "E" for Either/Orchestra. I was fortunate to have a good friend working at Rounder Distribution, the largest indie distributor in New England, who set up a deal for me. Being a radio person, and also an avid reader of jazz journalism, I decided that the most economical form of promotion would be to send out a lot of copies to radio and press, probably around 500 at the beginning, and I've continued to follow that plan. Over the years we've built up a kind of rising underground network as some of the college DJs and freelance journalists have progressed in music industry careers and remember hearing the E/O when they were just starting in the business.

The aesthetic of the label mirrors and extends the aesthetic I brought to the E/O. I was strongly influenced by the post-Coltrane mainstream and the incoming Midwestern avant-garde that I heard growing up around New York in the mid-70s. There was an expanding comprehension of the continuum from early, pre-swing jazz through swing, bop and avant-garde, and of course there were many different approaches to integrating rock and funk grooves and electronics into jazz. Connecting it all was the sense that jazz had to move forward to survive artistically. When Wynton Marsalis and his business supporters began trying to turn back the clock on jazz history and define a very conservative set of limits on what counts as jazz, I felt very alienated from the new mainstream of the jazz business. The E/O was my personal attempt to develop myself as a composer, player and bandleader outside of the neo-conservative wave in jazz. From the beginning, we integrated "non-jazz" repertoire and the full range of jazz styles. A lot of the ideas we were kicking around at that time have become commonplace in jazz now, such as playing rock songs, radically juxtaposing jazz styles, and bringing wit and humor to our presentation and promotion.

After the success I had with Dial "E", other musicians in the Boston scene began asking me for advice about how to put out a record, and it began to dawn on me that I had the infrastructure of a label in place but not enough product flow. I decided to expand and put out other artists' recordings, starting withKosen Rufu by the Billy Skinner Double Jazz Quartet. Billy is a trumpeter and composer whom I remembered from a point in his career in the mid-70s when he was playing with Jackie McLean. After that he had moved to Boston and led a band that included Henry Cook, a reedman whom I knew from my year at Berklee. Henry was a good organizer and served as de facto manager and producer for the DJQ, and we worked together on mixing, packaging and promoting Kosen Rufu in early 1990. Soon afterwards, I worked with violinist Emery Davis, saxophonist Phil Scarff (Natraj), bassist John Leaman (the Mandala Octet), saxophonist Jay Brandford, saxophonist (and E/O member) Charlie Kohlhase and vocalist Dominique Eade to put out a bunch of CDs in quick succession. It's impossible to lump these fine musicians in one stylistic camp, but altogether they help to understand the parameters of the label, from Indo-jazz to swinging post-bop to avant-garde to original vocal jazz. All intelligent, self-managed artists who could participate fully in producing and promoting their albums, all devoted to being original voices in their chosen stylistic areas. Also, many Either/Orchestra members sprinkled throughout these groups.

Since then, that general description has held. I see Accurate as a kind of coop label, where I handle the central organization, the relations with distributors and so on, and generally define the aesthetics of the label through my selection of artists, but where the artists have tons of autonomy in regards to their own albums. I've never been in the position, financially or organizationally, to develop very unformed artists, but I'm fortunate that Boston is just full of mature or quickly maturing artists who have needed what I can provide.



AAJ: You are both a musician and a label owner. How have the different practices influenced each other?

RG: I suppose the first way is that being an active player in several different segments of the Boston jazz and rock scenes, I have a lot of direct contact with players and hear through the musician grapevine what people are up to and what they are like as artists, organizers and people. So it's been fairly easy for me to find appropriate artists and vice versa. I have put out a number of albums by people I didn't previously know from different parts of the country, but that came a little later when I had more experience and skill at evaluating the situation. I'm fortunate that many of my friends have been great artists and many great artists are my friends, which made the quality of music on Accurate usually very high.

The next way is that any and all promotional strategies that I would recommend to other artists I have already tried out on myself, on the Either/Orchestra. The artists respect the fact that if I'm going to recommend, in effect, that they spend their promotional budget a certain way, I've already risked my own money in the same way. I'm like Dr. Jekyll, always drinking the experimental brew first. And because I'm a working musician, the artists come in recognizing that I have limited time and resources to put into their CDs, that my most valuable contribution to them will be my own experience, successes and failures.

AAJ: Could you mention some of the records that have made a special impression on you? What would you define as key moments in the history of the label?

RG: The obvious list would involve the artists who have gone on to great success. The unique rock band Morphine's debut album Good, Medeski Martin & Wood's Notes from the Underground, which they originally issued themselves, but which I picked up as they were emerging into fame, albums by Dominique Eade and Garrison Fewell which featured such major figures as Stanley Cowell, Alan Dawson, Fred Hersch and Cecil McBee. Of course the Either/Orchestra albums mean the most to me personally, and when I was nominated for a Grammy in 1992 that gave the label a higher level of cachet.

But I can honestly say that there is no album on the label that I didn't love at least a little during the course of working on it, and a great many that I loved a lot. When I go back to through the catalog, I'm amazed at the enduring quality and integrity of almost all of it. I only wish there is more that I could do to bring recognition to these recordings.

AAJ: Accurate Records has been around for quite some time now. Has it become easier or harder to make a living as an independent record label?

RG: It's becoming difficult to make money as any kind of record label, just ask the thousands of employees who have been laid off by the majors. It's not breaking news that over the past decade or more, the easy copying of digital files has made it increasingly hard to actually sell recorded music. As time goes by, the notion of physical distribution of products, which used to be one of the important elements of being a record label, has become less important. So, that "gatekeeper" aspect of labels is much reduced, although not gone. Accurate has enough of a track record so that my imprimatur does add some value to the titles I release, in that it will encourage journalists, radio programmers and even listeners to pick Accurate titles out of flood of music that is now released. It also helps contextualize what Accurate artists are doing, simply through association with the label's previous catalog.

AAJ: Could you say something about the different genres on the label—film music, jazz, rock and so on—and some of the artists that have shaped its sound?

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