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ACT: 20 Years of Magical Music

Jakob Baekgaard By

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Nowadays, creating a record label is closer to the norm than the exception. The real sign of success in a fleeting music business, where the sale of records constantly declines, is staying power. This year, 2012, the German record label ACT Music is able to celebrate its 20th anniversary. Not a mean feat for a company which, in spite of its success, has never had sales as a goal in itself. Instead, the label has been driven by a tireless effort to publish music that touches the heart and expands generic boundaries while remaining firmly planted in jazz.

ACT's aesthetic is embodied in founder and producer Siggi Loch, who has proven himself worthy of inclusion in the pantheon of great record men, which includes people such as Lester Koenig (Contemporary Records), Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff (Blue Note), Francois Dreyfus (Dreyfus Records) and Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegun (Atlantic Records). As it turns out, Nesuhi Ertegun was one of the people who helped Loch along the way to becoming a musical mogul. In an All About Jazz interview with R.J. DeLuke—other extracts from which are quoted below—Loch speaks about Ertegun, saying: "He became my mentor and also a kind of fatherly friend over the years."

Ertegun was a crucial influence on Loch, but only one of many in a life that from the beginning revolved around music. The title of a beautiful book of Loch's photography, with four accompanying CDs sampling some of the music he has produced, says it all: Love of My Life (Ear Books, 2006). To Loch, music has been a passion that began when he started out as drummer and later became a salesman who worked himself up to be a manager and producer, and ended up being the founder of one of the most influential independent jazz labels in Europe.

Even though Loch started out as a musician, he soon realized that he would serve his passion better by becoming a part of the industry around the music, putting his stamp on what is being passed on to the listening public. As he says : "You find new talent and you try to find a niche for their music. That's really what this business should be all about."

A quick look at the label's steadily growing roster of artists, and there is no doubt that Loch has fulfilled his goal of finding talent and nurturing it. When ACT started out in 1992, many of its signings were unknown to the world, but by 2012, artists such as pianist Esbjorn Svensson, singer Victoria Tolstoy, bassist Lars Danielsson, trombonist Nils Landgren and guitarist Nguyên Lê have become household names in the global jazz community and beyond.

Part of the reason for ACT's success is Loch's remarkable talent for finding new musical voices; but it is also that he doesn't try to squeeze his signings into a rigid ACT model. Instead, the artists are given free reign: "One reason why the label is called ACT is I go by the artist and what they represent. So once I decide to go with an artist, I give him the freedom to do what he wants to do. If he is spreading out, like Nguyên Lê does, I don't stop him...or Vince Mendoza, or Nils Landgren. They do different things. Sometimes, they do things that I'm not really crazy about, but as long as I believe in the artist and what he's doing I support him."

When it comes to whether the music should be released or not, there is, however, one decisive parameter for Loch: "Most important, I have to be emotionally moved by the music. That's where it starts. But also, is the artist really interested in communicating with an audience? That's a big problem in jazz. Some of these artists, they produce great jazz maybe but they are not really communicating. They are not interested in communicating, they are interested in making money, but not in communicating human beings."

Communication, emotion and freedom are keywords for Loch and ACT. There is no specific limitation, instead the music is about listening with an open mind and heart and without any preconceived ideas of what jazz should be. As Loch puts it: "I certainly don't think jazz is only jazz if it's swing, as it used to be, because jazz is more than that. Jazz, first of all, is a way of expressing freedom of mind. That's the key, not that it swings."

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