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Dreyfus Records: Crossing Continents with Music

Dreyfus Records: Crossing Continents with Music
Jakob Baekgaard By

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Music, at its best, has the ability to reach across boundaries of nationality, gender and age. If there's a message in music, it's about communication, and about getting to the essence of everything: the beating pulse of a human heart. In an increasingly commercial market, where it has become more important to make music that opens wallets rather than hearts, it's vital to remember those people who all along were in it for the art. Francis Dreyfus (1940-2010), the founder of Dreyfus Jazz, belonged to those select few. It's not a coincidence that the legendary pianist Ahmad Jamal, one of the mainstays of his label, has said that Dreyfus was: "One of the last great record men." Like every great label owner of the past, be it Alfred Lion (Blue Note), Orrin Keepnews (Riverside and Milestone) or Lester Koenig (Contemporary), what characterized Dreyfus was that he had a musical vision and a deep sense of the art of listening.

From an early age, music became an important part of Dreyfus' life. He was only eight years old when his brother initiated him into jazz, an art form which he would later call "the most important music of the century." He would start jazz clubs as a teenager, but he also found his way into publishing and it was the money he made from the discovery of electronic music pioneer Jean Michael Jarre that allowed him to set up his own jazz label, Dreyfus Jazz, in 1991, signing tenor saxophonist Steve Grossman, pianist Michel Petrucciani, accordion player Richard Galliano and gypsy guitarist Bireli Lagrene. Through the years, Dreyfus would maintain his love for those four basic instruments—saxophone, piano, accordion and guitar—and adding a wealth of significant artists to his roster, including saxophonist Rosario Giuliani, pianists Franck Avitabile and Jean-Michel Pilc, accordionist Marcel Loeffler and guitarists Philip Catherine and Luc Sylvain. Drummers also have a special place in the catalog: Aldo Romano, Ari Hoenig and Roy Haynes have all recorded for the label.

When it comes to singers, Dreyfus Jazz is influenced by Dreyfus' preference for singers who have the ability to sound like an instrument, meaning they sculpt vocal lines like a trumpeter or saxophonist would. Some of the most prominent singers on the label—Sara Lazarus, Anne Ducros and Terez Montcalm—have a strong resemblance to the most iconic names in jazz singing, Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan. The strong tie to jazz tradition is not a coincidence. In fact, part of Dreyfus' life's work was the creation of the Jazz Reference Series, an impressive collection of 70 albums, covering the greatest names in jazz, from Armstrong to saxophonist Art Pepper.

Speaking of the collection, Dreyfus said: "For whom, then, have I imagined doing this 70 volume anthology? For all those who already love jazz, and for those who will find great pleasure in re-discovering it, thanks to sound quality that is unexpected and unequaled. But also for those, namely the younger generation, who don't yet realize that they are going to love this music that burnt down, from its creative violence and its jubilant swing, the entire twentieth century.First, I had to do the near impossible: break the wall of sound in order to enhance the already sublime tracks of yesteryear...to make them sound as though they'd been recorded yesterday. Thanks to technological information storage and resolute research by an exceptional sound engineer, René Ameline, it was possible, with never ending passion and patience, including the best sources (the best songs and the best documents, no second takes and no false starts), to give a new youth to the voice of Ella and Billie, to offer an unheard of freshness to formidable improvisations by Louis Armstrong and Coleman Hawkins."

It is characteristic of Dreyfus, that while certainly interested in the historical importance of jazz music, he first and foremost cared about the freshness and importance of the art of Billie Holiday and saxophonist Charlie Parker. Restoring the music to utmost perfection, he wasn't so much acting as a custodian of old times, but rather as a messenger, making the transition from past to present. This is was what Dreyfus did and his label still does. It makes the musical connection between past and present, European and American traditions. It might seem like a paradox that a French label owner was interested in preserving the musical heritage of America, spreading its grandeur to a young European audience, but in the case of Dreyfus there wasn't a contradiction between being a European and a preserver of jazz tradition.

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