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An AAJ Interview with Steven Joerg of AUM Fidelity


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AUM is of course the mantra of mantras, representing 'the soundless sound of the universe,' the original tone and the source of all creation. ...[it's] not low fidelity or high fidelity, but AUM Fidelity.
It's curious to note that in the world of science, schools of thought are often labeled after the founding father of the discipline in question. For example, Euclidean geometry, Newtonian physics, Freudian psychology (although whether this latter qualifies as science or not deserves scrutiny and debate outside this forum).

Conversely, in the world of music, seemingly arbitrary words are used to describe genres (and sub-genres). The meaning of the word "jazz" itself is subject to great debate (is jazz a style? A set of styles? An attitude? An aesthetic principle? All or none of the above? And why should we care?). The various sub-genres, swing, cool, bop, fusion, smooth, etc. blur, intermingle, and become increasingly irrelevant as tempus goes on a-fugit-ing (despite their inherent convenience in marketing, commerce, and for publications such as this, the reality is that many of these words have not only been used to define styles but also discrete eras of jazz history).

So why is it that we don't have "Duke music" or "Bird music" or "Monk music" or "Miles music" or "Trane music" or "Ornette music" or "Mingus music" or "Braxton music" or?? Well... heck don't ask me, I'm just an ordinary guy who gets to ask some questions around here (bear with me gentle reader, this really is going someplace—or at least I hope it is?)

But seriously, it can be readily asserted that the music which each of these gentlemen played (and of course that of many others too numerous to mention'so apologies in advance if I have omitted your jazz legend of choice) has largely created, innovated, and spawned jazz as we have come to know, understand, and love it over the past 50 years.

However, it's not only the notes they played, when they played them, or how they played them that allows their legacy to help define the very best of modern jazz. Instead it's their common denominator of giving voice to powerful, positive, passionate, life affirming, uplifting energy that enables music to transcend being ear candy, empowering it to be food for the heart, mind, and soul. Just as a light bulb changes electrical energy into light, or a speaker changes electrical energy in turn to magnetic energy, to mechanical energy, to sound, so have these musicians transformed profound thoughts and deep innermost emotions into music. Perhaps, in the end, this is what defines jazz as opposed to traditions or formulaic blends of composition and improvisation.

Then again, jazz could simply be the emotions created inside of you when listening to this music?

In light of the all of the preceding speculation, submitted for your approval is the independent recording label AUM Fidelity. Originally inspired by and named after the legendary Charles Mingus album Mingus Ah Um, it could be suggested that the core principle behind the label and the musicians who record for it is to articulate that which cannot be articulated.

As example, consider these words from guitarist Joe Morris, extracted from the liner notes to SOUL SEARCH, a recently released set of duets with violinist Mat Maneri: 'Mat and I reach for the place that touches our sense of meaning in the most contemporary way. The sharpest listeners are on the same quest as we are. They will understand the title Soul Search because they will listen to this music with their hearts as well as their minds... they also know better than to suggest that thinking and feeling have to be separate??

Or these words from bassist William Parker, extracted from the liner notes to MAYOR OF PUNKVILLE: "The theories of Cosmic Music, Spirit Music, Winti Music, Tone Music, Om Music, are based on the ultimate music theory which is love of GOD. The acknowledgement that the Universe and everything in it is connected and is music." and "This music is not polarized into any camp. The word is not Jazz. The word is Universal Music."

In order to help celebrate the releases of the Joe Morris/Mat Maneri duet CD Soul Search and the William Parker/Little Huey Orchestra double cd MAYOR OF PUNKVILLE, All About Jazz is pleased and honored to present the following dialogue with AUM Fidelity founder Steven Joerg in which he shares some insight as to the hows, whys, and wherefores that this label valiantly strives to present music of true vision and integrity. This interview was conducted via e-mail in July 2000. Thanks to modern jazz editor Glenn Astarita for facilitating the interview. Special thanks to Steven Joerg for his continued support of All About Jazz.

All About Jazz: Would you please give us a brief history of AUM Fidelity? Please include an explanation as to why or what inspired you to found this label.

Steven Joerg: A brief history...hmm, well...in dreams begin responsibilities, right?

The first impulse to start my own label took place back in the early 90's while I was working for peanuts rather than bananas at a small indie label in Hoboken, NJ. The brightest highlight of that time was getting to work with the group Shrimp Boat—who became my favorite band for the remainder of their active lifestyle. They had quite a bit more recorded material than what could fit on their "official" annual album releases, and I very much wanted to put out some limited vinyl issues of this music. However, I don't believe I was ready yet, and at any rate, I didn't have the money.

My next extensive labor of love took place from 1992-96, running Homestead Records in NYC, which was an adventurous underground rock imprint. I became more intimately familiar with many of the nuts and bolts and washers and super-glue required to operate an independent label. During that time, I steered some 40 odd records into the marketplace. It was at Homestead that I met and first began working with Matthew Shipp, David S. Ware, William Parker, and Joe Morris. We did some mightily creative 'damage' together there, introducing their music to a new realm of folks hungry for the real, and it was good. While on HMS salary time, I put out my first "AH/UM Fidelity" records in the form of a couple fabulous 7" singles. I learned how to lose money in short order—a very good lesson.

The effective inspirations to start my own small business took place while at Homestead. There was no label in the world at the time that was fully focused and committed to the modern masters of jazz based here in NYC (and Boston in Joe Morris' case)—whose work in my extensive and obsessive listening experience resided at the very highest level of profound expression. At the same time, I didn't like all of the ways in which the owner of Homestead handled his business. In December 1995 I made a vow to myself to start up in one year, and over the next 12 months I took care of the commitments I'd made to artists I had signed to Homestead.

AUM Fidelity officially came into being on December 2, 1996 when I brought David S. Ware and his Quartet into the studio. I left Homestead at the end of that month, took a week off, and have been devoted to the AUM ever since.

The first two AUM albums were released in September 1997—Wisdom Of Uncertainty by David S. Ware Quartet and Sunrise In The Tone World by William Parker & THE LITTLE HUEY CREATIVE MUSIC ORCHESTRA. The remainder of AUM Fidelity's history to date is in and on the records; I've been averaging three masterworks per annum.

Ah, and the initial inspiration is finally coming full circle, as I'm currently working on an archival collection of unreleased works of beauty by Shrimp Boat—currently due for release in Spring 2001.

AAJ: Are there any underlying and/or unifying aesthetic policies or criteria that define what is or is not fitting for AUM Fidelity to release? If so, could you please explain these?

SJ: When I first met all of the musicians that I am working with, the underlying aesthetic I had for AUM was mirrored in their musical concepts and lifestyles. Which, in short, is the understanding that music is a powerful collective and universal force all it's own that is inherently pro-creative. It takes gifted musicians with solid vision (of which compassion plays a large part), and commitment to consistently bring music into being for the players and listeners both to experience.

AUM is of course the mantra of mantras, representing "the soundless sound of the universe," the original tone and the source of all creation. The music which comes out on AUM—all of it—displays a fidelity to this original tone. Not low fidelity or high fidelity, but AUM Fidelity.

Also, I'm very much into making albums. The studio or live session tapes are sequenced into the arc of a great album, like Mingus Ah Um, which is the original inspiration behind the label name. There are way too many good and mediocre records out on the market. I feel it's not worth making an album unless it will be great. Sure, this type of judgement is subjective, but time will tell further.

I also believe strongly in the subsequent promotion of the music, as making great records is only half of the work.

AAJ: What is a typical work day for you like? (or alternatively, what demands or obligations does AUM Fidelity place on you personally and professionally?)

SJ: Well, I don't know that there is ever a typical day. AUM Fidelity has been my full-time and only gig since January 1997, with the exception of six months part-time at a bakery and occasional content providing for a web-site, when I've found myself a few months rent from the street. I've literally done everything here from the top—commissioning and producing the recordings, designing the albums and adverts, distribution, promotion, occasionally booking shows and tours, all the lovely bookkeeping, etc. Since David S. Ware got signed to Columbia Jazz, I've also been his official manager. Further insight into the other side of the fence, no greener sir is the grass.

AAJ: What is your favorite story about life with AUM Fidelity? What is the most satisfying or rewarding part of your job? What makes all this effort worthwhile? (i.e., WHY do you do this?)

SJ: My favorite stories come from touring with the groups. The first OTHER DIMENSIONS IN MUSIC tour ever—six dates through the South East with a path that converged with Hurricane Floyd—now that wrought some good stories (buy me a drink when you're in town and I'll give you an animated version).

The performances that I present here at my space (so far, Other Dimensions In Music, Joe Morris Quartet, Test, William Parker & Hamid Drake, and Mat Maneri + Joe Morris) are always filled with a very diverse audience full of new faces. Seeing the fresh-eared folks respond with amazed smiles to the sounds is a distinct joy.

The most rewarding part of this is communicating and working together with these musicians, who are all incredibly deep artists and human beings.

I do this because I still feel it NEEDS to be done. It remains an imperative for reasons that are beyond what I can go into here, except to say that the world is a sad and dangerous and beautiful place. Adding to adjective #3 is key.

AAJ: If possible, could you briefly describe the process that a recording might go through from being a "release candidate" to a "finished product"?

SJ: All but a few of the albums were recorded after a commitment was made to release the recordings. In the case of Sunrise In The Tone World, the album was already mastered. Before hearing this music, I read the writings of William Parker, which were to accompany the release, and I remember committing then.

Vision One was a benefit compilation made for Arts For Art (the organization that produces the Vision Festival). I agreed to do this because I knew I could I could put together a great 2xCD—I was there for the performances, and knew that Alen Stefanov had done a fine job recording them.

The process for the rest, basic: studio recordings have yielded from 2-3 hours of music; live AUM sets have been pulled from twice that. The tapes are listened to, selections are made and possibly re-made, a sequence is decided upon, and the tapes are then mixed and mastered into the final album. This is all done in collaboration with the artists. At this point, I design the package on computer while listening to the album.

I take the subway up to Queens early the morning after, where my man Ray makes the films. He does a great job. Then it's off to the plant and the printers. Yup.

Once you've got the "finished product," the hardest parts of being a full-service recording label begins, which is of course letting people know it exists and maintaining a good distribution network.

AAJ: If you could change one aspect of the recording industry at large, what would it be?

SJ: It would be very nice to have the role model status of Kid Rock and William Parker be directly inverted.

The recording industry at large? In general, reducing the occurrence of ignorance meshed with arrogance, the combination of which—as in the world at large, gives rise to some of the greatest evils. For example, when it comes to the old chicken vs. the egg conundrum, there is a rampant belief in many sectors of the industry that the farmer came first.

AAJ: Do you think that digital recording technology has made it easier for independent recording labels to be founded and to continue to operate? Why or why not?

SJ: It's ease of availability and portability has made it quite a bit more economically feasible to make very good quality recordings. Founding and continuing to operate a viable recording label is based on many variables.

AAJ: Do you feel that the continued growth of the Internet is making it easier for independent recording labels to be founded and to continue to operate? Why or why not?

SJ: Well, it provides another forum for potential communication, and if one is savvy about utilizing this forum, then it can definitely help.

AAJ: What have been the best and worst aspects of the Internet for AUM Fidelity? Please elaborate.

SJ: Best is common for small business: e.mail saves on long-distance phone/fax bills, and my bulk e.list is the best possible way to keep a lot of folks up to date with AUM news via the click of one button (you can be added by sending a simple request to [email protected]).

Worst: as I have yet to upgrade to DSL or cable, I abhor molasses slow web-browsing, and ever since my local service provider was purchased by a national corporation, the quality of service has gone way down. I'm in the process of adjusting this right now.

AAJ: How do you anticipate that the availability of economical high speed Internet access is going to change the music industry? Is it evolution or revolution? Or merely big business hype?

SJ: Widespread availability of economical and efficient high-speed Internet access? Well, I feel it will still be quite some time before every potential record buyer has ready access.

I believe that IF or when album downloads via the internet become widespread enough that brick 'n' mortar record stores start readily dropping because of this, it would or will be a devolutionary step for humanity by taking out yet more interaction with a literal public space.

Regarding the ease of copying digitized information (piracy in a post-copyright age), and how it currently affects and will/may continue to affect revenue for artists and record labels both (depending, right? )...I would direct all fans of music to this article:

Virtual Tip Jar or Charity Case?: Asking Artists to Take It Up The ARS by Jenny Toomey and Kristin Thomson, archived at http://www.insound.com/insoundoff.

AAJ: What do you think are the greatest artistic and business challenges (problems and/or opportunities) for AUM Fidelity as it heads into the year 2001 and beyond?

SJ: The same challenges exist as ever in the attempt to increase the exposure for these artists, and develop healthy relationships with distributors the world over. The very limited niche that "jazz" has in the music marketplace also has a very narrow and very short staircase attached. It remains a massive challenge to create bridges to new audiences with all the false constructs that exist around "jazz."

Me, I appreciate Jazz as a distinctly Afro-American means of expression. It is a language that has been continuously updated and advanced through the work of truly original voices throughout this century, in order to retain a direct relevance to the present day.

One of the major problems has been the fact that the 'Jazz Industry' is a death industry—box sets as relative coffins—which automatically relegates jazz to the past. Thereby, it has principally ignored—for decades and decades—the lifeblood of invention that pulses and sometimes pours forth (like now, for instance). So, to the music-consuming public at large, it is presented as a music that is not new, that is not 'happening.' It has remained solely up to independent entities—artists, labels, writers, presenters—with our relatively negligible financial resources, to bring the present evolutionary state of the music into the light. To bring this "rather intensely beautiful new soul music" closer to the fore. Gosh, this all sounds rather familiar, don't it? Oh yeah, then there is the racism which remains so prevalent.

Creatively, I'm blessed with having a positive working relationship with artists who remain in peak form—artists who inherently retain a deep sensitivity to the changes taking place in the natural and unnatural worlds today.

AAJ: Aside from AUM Fidelity recordings, what would be on your Top 10 Desert Island Discs?

SJ: Well then, expanding your caveat—I won't list the work of any of the artists who I know, and whose work I love, which appears on other labels like No More, Eremite, Hat Art, OkkaDisc or in one highly distinct instance, Omnitone.

Actually, thinking about it, I'd choose to either take my whole collection or drown on the way there, or actually, no, I'd prefer to take along a set of tools in order to build my own instruments on the island.

Well alright, I'll play along. If I were to suddenly be banished this week, I'd bring the following:

LE TIGRE / s.t.a. (their wondrously ROCK'ng debut)
FELA / Box Set #1 (fefe naa efe, to all you gentlemen out there)
The SHRIMP BOAT tapes (the album isn't out on AUM yet, and I've still got a couple hundred hours of listening to do.)
EPMD / (the 90m mix tape I made a couple years ago...Brooklyn roots music, yunno)
DUKE ELLINGTON / The Far East Suite
REAL: The Tom T. Hall Project / (one of the best artist 'tributes.'..ah, it's the songs just can't be killed)

AAJ: What upcoming projects from AUM Fidelity should AAJ readers be aware of?

SJ: The William Parker & Hamid Drake Project and The SHRIMP BOAT Project.

AAJ: Finally, a purely speculative question. If you were to host a dinner party for the staff of All About Jazz, what would you serve?

SJ: Well now, this would never happen. However, if ever any member of All About Jazz were in NYC while I was hosting a rooftop bbq, they would be invited and instructed to bring their own grill-ables and beverages. I would like to at some point spend a large wad of cash on a dinner party for the AUM Fidelity recording artists, in which case there are great Peruvian, Mediterranean and Chinese restaurants right here in my Brooklyn neighborhood—each of which would be very nice for the occasion.

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