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Cuneiform Records: Growing Progressive Music for 27 Years

Cuneiform Records: Growing Progressive Music for 27 Years
Mark Redlefsen By

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Twenty seven years is a long time for a niche progressive music label such as Cuneiform Records not just to survive, but to remain inventive and, in the best sense, ambitious. Steve Feigenbaum founded Cuneiform back in 1984, and with his wife, Joyce, runs it from Silver Springs, Maryland. Hosting bands such as Universe Zero, digging up and releasing archival material from groups such as Soft Machine, releasing consecutive double CDs from avant-garde jazz heroes such as trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith, Cuneiform brags an impressive and eclectic roster of historic and contemporary artists.

Cuneiform has expanded its reach over the years: its sweep now runs from England's Canterbury scene of the late 1960s and early 1970s to the contemporary downtown scene in New York City. Despite the decline in CD sales in the creative music marketplace, Feigenbaum maintains enthusiasm for unearthing lost or undiscovered musical treasures and producing new releases. He works with creative artists who want to release their music with someone who advocates for them as both a fan and as a business person, and who can promote them effectively. Living only a mile from the office, Feigenbaum maintains a hands on approach to his work.

Cuneiform showcases its artists with two mini festivals in November 2011. The first, "Cuneifest," will be held in Baltimore over two days: November 19 at Orion Sound Studios being "Rock Day" (featuring artists such as Hamster Theater, Upsilon Acrux and Zevious), and November 20 at An Die Musik being "Jazz Day" (featuring artists such as The Claudia Quintet + 1, Positive Catastrophe and Ideal Bread).

The second festival, "Cuneiform At The Stone," lets the label play curator for Stone owner and avant-iconic musician, reed player John Zorn, whose club is located in the Lower East Side of NYC. A blend of both the rock and jazz acts on the label will appear between November 15-30; the rolling bill includes jazz legends such as trombonist Roswell Rudd, playing with Ideal Bread, and younger innovators such as pianist Jason Moran playing with Ergo. Fusion enthusiasts will have a chance to hear the Mahavishnu Project playing the music of John McLaughlin and the Mahavishnu Orchestra in this intimate setting.

Both festivals are testament to Cuneiform's ability to attract creative artists and to stride into another decade with its trademark robust releases.

Interview with Steve Feigenbaum

All About Jazz: It seems that Cuneiform has made a shift towards jazz over the past few years. Was that a conscious decision?

Steve Feigenbaum: There is absolutely a premeditated move towards jazz. I have always had an interest in jazz personally. I was into the Mothers of Invention and a whole other world of "unpopular music" that I listened to at my local library in Wheaton, Maryland where I grew up. They had a jazz section. They had records like Free Jazz (Atlantic, 1970) by Ornette Coleman, Sunship (Impulse Records, 1965) and Ascension (Impulse Records, 1965) by John Coltrane, Unit Structres (Blue Note Records, 1964) by Cecil Taylor and three Impulse albums by Charles Mingus and maybe some stuff by Curtis Counce. I was in 8th Grade and I wanted to listen to music that "smart people" listened to or what some might call "weird music." John Coltrane hit an interesting music chord with me with Sunship. I made myself listen to that record. It was what Charles Ives called "stretching your ears." Mingus also hit me in a big way. Again, I was a kid, and then by 14 or 15 I got way into The Muffins. After I actually met them I got way into things like the Canterbury scene.

In the past I felt like I could not compete as a jazz label. The big labels were doing this stuff bigger and better than I was. Now, major labels don't do jazz and or are on their third Charles Mingus reissue. There is just less jazz being released from them. As a result, I am getting offered better and more sellable things, although they are not always the same. Let's say high profile things. The opportunities came and I ran with them. I think jazz is where it is happening now. You see, the dive club rock bands are creating post-punk everything music and I work with some of those guys. In jazz it isn't 1964 anymore and we won't see the Miles Davis quintet again. They were really great, but it's gone.

Guys like Ken Vandermark play the same punk circuit bands in vans play, do it the same way and play for the people. Jazz guys bring it like the punk guys in a very interesting way. Additionally, the jazz press is much more open. Like Downbeat will now take some crazy skronk thing by Marc Ribot and treat it like it is all part of the pie. As it was written about sometime back that all of the anti-jazz battles were fought by 1965, and then the jazz young lions came and pretended it was 1965 and did that whole thing again for a while. But now they are not sucking all of the oxygen out of the room anymore.

I listen to demos all day long and for the most part, I have to say, they are really good. There is no shortage of things connecting to people and therefore, in making the shift, I do not have to be overly concerned about quality. There is an endless stream of really talented people out there.

Whether straight jazz or freaky jazz, with two saxophones, drums, bass, maybe a Fender Rhodes, you can play anywhere. If you have extensive equipment requirements then it is limiting and it is also expensive. I saw the Aram Shelton quartet last year and they got lost on the road and they were supposed to play at the club at 9:00pm and they got there at ten minutes of nine. They had been driving all day. These poor guys did not even have a chance to come in and wash their faces and get the road dirt off. I mean, they were a case of two saxophones, bass and drums. I think they were seven minutes late and it took them ten minutes to set up and they played fifty minutes and they were astounding. A group with a lot of stuff can't do that. It makes it harder for them to play out there. Even if their music is unbelievable, it does limit their ability to play in many places live.

All About Jazz: British bassist and composer jazz great Graham Collier passed very recently. You had released some of his archival live performances on the Workpoints CD. Please tell us about your interest in the English jazz scene.

SF: The "Brit jazz" awareness is because of Soft Machine and King Crimson. You take guys like Henry Miller and Keith Tippett who played on King Crimson records, and horn guys like Elton Dean who had guests on Soft Machine albums who are his band members. So the Brit jazz thing has always been of interest to me and obviously stuff that I have done has been historical. Also obviously I have done the Mujician stuff and they were contemporary and some stuff with Paul Dunmall, which is also contemporary. I had a cassette in my car that someone had given me that had two older unreleased albums. One was the Chris MacGregor trio and the other was by John Surman and I thought, "Hey! I should play this!" The only place I could play a cassette was in a player in an old car. I heard it and I was like, "Man, this is great." I look at the case to see who is playing on it and I see John Marshall and I kind of knew John. I called up John and asked if he had a contact for Surman and he was more than happy to help me with his details. I spoke to Surman and he was so nice that I had to write back to John Marshall and ask if he greased the wheels on that conversation for me, which he did, nicely enough.

The first archival thing I did of the Brit jazz guys was Travelling Somewhere (2004) by Brotherhood of Breath, which was really special and I am pretty proud of all my releases, but except for British people over forty, that was one of the forgotten groups. I think that release that we did of their stuff did not make anybody rich and famous, but it did help re-establish that there were these amazing players making that kind of music. I think that was a nice thing to accomplish. The British jazz thing has always been of interest, and certainly in the 1960s and 1970s there was a very distinct sound and I liked it a lot. I had the opportunity to work with this material. That world is certainly a smaller place, but I have had people come to me and say "Wow, Mike Osborne!" I don't think you would have heard that from someone from the States in 1974, there just weren't that many Mike Osborne aficionados around. We are going to continue that because we are going to do a Michael Gibbs record in January. Mike has been arranging for conducting the NDR Big Band in the 1990s and into the 2000s. And so it will be a selection of material from the NDR Big Band. Mike is someone I was introduced to by the late Graham Collier. I think Mike played trombone in Graham's first band actually. They go way back.

Now some of the stuff I come across is not just cassettes in my car, but through things like Radio Bremen that has all of these archival things. Some of these Radio Bremen type people are easy to work with, some are difficult to deal with, but some understand that there is a price that will allow this to happen and a price that will make sure it never happens. In all of the cases with that material, you do have to get the artists' permission. They own it and they are the ones that can say yes and make it happen, but they are not going to release it if the artist is not on board. You have to reach these people and get them to say "okay." That's an issue, some of them are bitter, some of them couldn't care less, and I get the occasional "Who are you?" Obviously if you know a few people it helps because I am not buddy buddies with John Surman, but if I knew John was on an archival release of another artist I would feel comfortable enough to reach out and ask, "Hey John, would you mind writing a note to this guy and say that you were pleased with the work we did together?" I mean that helps. It helps that you have relationships with other people.

AAJ: Will we see more releases in the future from Radio Bremen?

SF: Radio Bremen does not have much more that I can do that I want to do. I mean they have a Radio Bremen thing with saxophonist Ornette Coleman, but am I going to try and reach Ornette Coleman? It doesn't seem really likely. The NDR stuff, I mean there isn't that much television stuff and I did two, and I tried to do a couple of others and the artist said "no," and if the artist says no then that's the end of that. Obviously for the audio stuff, I am doing this Michael Gibbs release, so that's good. Now for Radio Bremen audio they actually had a list that they sent to me that had full dates and everything. NDR has no list, but a woman there named Sylvia told me that she can check by artist. In the case of John Surman they have five different things from John Surman and I am looking into it. In some cases it's Surman in a band and he is not the leader.

AAJ: You had some great success with releasing archival music from the Canterbury scene. How did you unearth that material and what kind of cooperation did you receive from the musicians?

SF: The cooperation from the Canterbury Scene came from Hugh Hopper. He was a great man and it was so sad that he died. He was healthy up until the end. Hugh was in touch with everyone he ever played with even if it was just a card. It kind of tells you about the man. It's like a guy who was in three different marriages, but was on good terms with all of the in laws and families and he managed to sort of stay part of each family. That was Hugh. A lot of the material from the Canterbury scene came from him. I love that stuff and it sells really well too, but it really wasn't that big of a scene, but if you look at what we have done, we have done a tremendous amount of stuff. I mean look at Gilgamesh, they were a band that put out two records, and we ended up putting out a record by a band that put out two records, I mean who ever heard of such a thing? Most of it is unreleased material. National Health was a band that put out two or maybe one more posthumous record and I put out a record. With Soft Machine I put out I think like eight records. This is a band that had more than eight records, but you see my point on this. I would certainly like to say I would do more of that stuff and it would certainly make my distributors happy, but I don't know if there is anything else out there or rather anything else out there worth doing. There are some other archival things done out there that were not done by me, which is fine, like with Caravan. Someone got to Pye first. Dave Stewart did a couple of things with Hatfield and the North which I also did not do, but I kind of feel like there is nothing else to do from that scene. The quality stuff has been done. I would love to be "the Canterbury guy," but you have to have other things going on because when that mine goes empty you could be out of a job, so it is important to go after other areas.

AAJ: How did you begin working with Wadada Leo Smith?

SF: Wadada came to me through Henry Kaiser when they worked together in Yo Miles!. I've known Henry for years. He is a natural chatty guy. Those were all Henry's guys on those releases. After some time, Wadada dropped me a note mentioning that he liked the way we did the Yo Miles! releases and said that he had some other things he was working on and would there be interest and I was like "Sure man!" He told me that he specifically liked the fact that we got records reviewed and we got reviews that he is hoping to see. He's very happy and had decided to give us the higher profile things, which is fine with me. We have contracts and all of our contracts are record by record contracts, so it is fine with me if you do a record with me and then do a record with someone else. I mean if it's a different record I don't care. So I think that he has decided that with the bigger projects that he will give them to us, which is good for him and us. I have a promotions department to pay and we do need the higher profile acts. He has been an avant- garde artist in the real world for a long time, so he knows what to give where. He has a very strong sense of who he is and what he is doing. He's methodical and he's thought it out. The next record we will be doing with Wadada will be a triple record set called Ten Freedom Summers. It's about the civil rights movement in America. It will be by his Golden Quintet and he will be recording it next month and it will be out next May. We are all getting ready for it because we know it will be one of our big releases for next year. The staff love dealing with him because he knows what he wants, but he is kind of funny in a wry way. He appreciates us and let's us know it.

AAJ: How much do you get involved in the audio engineering of the recordings?

SF: I want the records to sound good, but the answer is that I am not Manfred Eicher, I am not in the studio with these guys. I do not choose the studios, but I maintain decent quality. There are eight Soft Machine records that I did with good sound quality for instance, but I am not in a hurry to do a ninth with poor studio quality. I do not want to milk the market. I take what the artist gives me, but I do not have it where I can fly to Norway and use my favorite engineer. I am not dissing on Manfred Eicher. He just has more money than I have and does it the right way. I can't afford to do it that way. I am not sure fans really understand how little this stuff really sells. It's really small. The last few years of digital downloads have not improved things for the label. Although they are an important part of the revenue stream, they do not make up for people just taking the records. When I look at what I used to sell it's just much less. People don't really want to pay for music now. People are just getting free music when they pay their ISP or cell phone bill every month. I used to have catalog items that were steady sellers that I knew that I could sell. Things that were five years old, but they still sold two or three hundred copies a year. I used to have a lot of them, but they just do not sell anymore. It's possible that they have just reached the end of their life, but for all of them to have stopped at the same time makes me think that the people that want to buy it, buy it in the first eighteen months and then after that people they just download it from a blog. So I sell more high profile stuff than I used to, but sell less than I used to.

AAJ: How did your work with Richard Pinhas begin?

SF: When I was a kid in the 1970s, I liked the Heldon records. I started Cuneiform in 1984 and at some point there was the CD reissue boom and he was not in on it. So I got his address somehow and wrote him a letter, this was before the internet. He ignored the letter. So I wrote him another letter a year later and he responded. I went up to New York to meet him because he was in New York for some reason and we met up and made a deal. They sold much less than I thought they would. But, I like Richard and he has always been very appreciative. Now I am not the only person that does this, but every six months the artist gets a check. Pulling three hundred royalty forms is a lot of work, but these guys deserve it and he likes that respect and appreciates it. Richard was out of the music scene for a while and then he got back in and we have been working with him for a while. Those Heldon records are now considered legendary, but he is a guy that does not like to repeat himself. He is always looking to do something different. His duo with Merzbow was interesting. He says for his next record he is not going to use the echo system on his guitar. He's gotten noisier and crazier with his sound as the years go forward.

AAJ: Do you plan any more electronic music projects?

SF: I can't say where it is all going and our place in it, but I go out and see a fair amount of music and I go to a local place where they have guys with laptops doing stuff and some of it is interesting. But I am a big believer in bands. I am not that interested in laptops because when you open your eyes it looks like someone getting very excited about reading their email. I don't see us going the laptop route, but I like seeing them used in the context of a band. Now the new Sao Paulo Underground which features Rob Mazurek, Tres Cabeças Loucuras, that has electronics in it, it is working with a real band. With pure laptop stuff, it's not much to look at. I like to enjoy what I am seeing. Take improvised music in general; I am not a huge consumer of free improvised music in terms of recordings. Now live I can see how people play off each other. If given a choice for instance to see Evan Parker live or listen to him, I will always choose live. That's where it comes alive for me. Laptop music does not really come alive like that in the same way. Now this might be the future, but it is not where the majority of my personal interests lie. The fact that it is portable and inexpensive, maybe it is the future, but I am fifty, so I am allowed to be stuck in my ways.

AAJ: Has Cuneiform served as a home for bands such as Universe Zero and Mats/Morgan Band that you have been an advocate for? What do you find attracts these niche bands to work with you long term?

SF: Well, there aren't that many Universe Zeros in the world. To keep it in perspective they are a thirty five year old band, so I don't expect them to become something different than what they are. They have invented this sound that other people emulate. There are not a lot of bands like them out there. I love them. I think the last one they did was as good as anything that they have ever done. I would love to do more. Take Miriodor. I have worked with them a long time. We are talking about doing another one together. I don't see a lot of activity on that front. I used to get a lot of demos from bands that sound like they grew up on that music. Those are bands that have severe technical requirements so those types of bands you don't tend to hear from much anymore.

AAJ: Please tell us about this month's live shows in New York and Baltimore promoting Cuneiform artists.

SF: I got an email two and a half years ago from John Zorn, who owns the Stone. It's a great place. The way they run the place is by using curators to book the bands, which is good because that way they don't have to bother John. So now he's having record labels curate, and he asked me to do it and I was glad to do it. It is a nice thing. John is a big player in this field, so it is nice to have him acknowledge our label. His emails have been so nice, he is very helpful. It has been a big congratulation to us. Bands from out of town are coming in. We were asked to do one in Baltimore here, so we will be doing that as a way of saying "Hey, we are still here!"


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