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Darby Christensen: At the Jazz Summit

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There are little regional pockets [around the country] where there's all this quality stuff going on, and a lot people don't know about that. —Darby Christensen
If you still see Summit Records as a niche label for classical brass players, Summit president Darby Christensen wants you to take another look. The label's catalogue still has great brass recordings, but it also features chamber music, educational recordings, and an ever-growing roster of jazz musicians. Summit seeks a broad audience, Christensen says, "the music lover." He sums up the label this way: "Good music is what we're all about."

All About Jazz: How did Summit form?

Darby Christensen: Summit Records started actually about twelve years ago. It formed out of Summit Brass, which was a classical large brass ensemble who had some things on a larger label and just kind of got fed up with not reaping any benefits. So they started their own label... they called it Summit Records and put the first release out. It was a Summit Brass recording, Toccata and Fugue.

AAJ: At what point did you become involved?

DC: My business partner, Kip Sullivan, was involved six years ago. I became involved about four years ago. I had been in New Orleans doing shopping center marketing and my wife and I just decided to take a leap of faith and move to Phoenix. [I] always wanted to get into the record business—I don't know why, I just always had a love for music—and we just came here cold turkey and I found this marketing director position at Summit. Didn't have a clue about the label or about classical music in general. Just started from there. My business partner and I acquired the company about a year and a half ago and really started focusing in on jazz as well as the classics.

AAJ: Did you have an interest in jazz prior to getting into the record business?

DC: I've always had a passion for music. I guess I've always loved jazz. I've known a lot of the classic players, but I didn't know a lot about jazz, the ins and outs of it. Just by getting into this I got very interested in it and just kind of formed from there.

AAJ: What is your job exactly?

DC: My title is president. Basically it's a co-op run thing between my business partner and myself. We now own the label. It began as the marketing position and just kind of blossomed from there.

AAJ: How do you make the decisions about what gets recorded? How do you find musicians?

DC: It happens in many different ways. The way it happens most often is we get projects [submitted]—most of them are finished products. We have an A&R [artist and repertory] group that we sit down with and first we study the musical quality of it—is it up to our standards? If it is, we'll either master it to get it consistent with our sound, obviously after a deal has been struck, and take it from there. Dave Shirk of Sonorous Mastering right here in Phoenix does a great job. We also do many projects locally. We have an engineer locally, Clark Rigsby, who is just wonderful, who has done a lot of our things and we bring artists in to record with him occasionally.

AAJ: As I remember Summit from years ago it was mostly a classical label. When did Summit begin recording jazz?

DC: That's a funny thing because the second recording ever on Summit was a jazz horn CD, kind of a quasi-big-band, jazz trio, jazz horn thing. But after that it dropped off. The ownership at that point was more interested in the classics—and the brass, primarily. Summit did a thing about a year afterwards called Trumpets in Stride with Chris Gekker and a couple of very cool trumpet players, along with Sam Pilafian on tuba—a Dixieland type thing which crossed into jazz. And [then] really it dropped off until I'd say about three years ago when we did a couple of licensed projects, a Claudio Roditi and a Lee Konitz. And we really started to focus in about two years ago.

AAJ: Does Summit Jazz have a particular musical slant or point of view?

DC: For the most part straight ahead, but we try not to put a definition on it unless it's like a New Age thing—and nothing against New Age because it sells a heck of a lot more than jazz—but that's not who we are. It seems to be mostly straight ahead.

AAJ: Does the classical tradition at the label influence at all your outlook toward jazz?

DC: You know, it really doesn't. Under the previous ownership it may have because it was a very brass-centered thing—[and] we still obviously bring some great brass players to the label—but it really doesn't. In the beginning it may have been somewhat of a hindrance because people thought we were just a brass label, which isn't bad, but it kind of limited us at the beginning. But now with the addition of David Friesen to the label and some other things I think we've finally cracked that stereotype.

AAJ: Tell me a little about your educational recordings.

DC: The roots of that are in a series called the OrchestraPro Series which feature principal players from major orchestras like Phil Smith from the New York Philharmonic, Ralph Sauer from the Los Angeles Philharmonic—trombone player, trumpet player, etc.—going over standard orchestral excerpts one on one with the listener, not accompanied by anybody, just playing it one on one and then talking about it. So it's almost like a hundred dollar an hour lesson. Lately we've gotten into the kids. We have a line called Summit Kids, which we really want to continue with because it's all about education. Ideally it would be fun to combine jazz with that.

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