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Engine Records: Just Say No to Dumbass Music

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We try to sound different; by different I would say more 'organic'--not as slick as Blue Note, Verve, but strong, detailed and powerful recordings. I think the New Orleans Suite is a great example of what I aspire to have my releases sound like.
Engine Records is a very small New York based, basement-run record label that boasts thirty-one releases by original artists, amongst which are saxophonist Andrew Lamb, the unsung percussionist Warren Smith, and newcomers saxophonist Niko Higgins and bassist Paul Steinbeck. Engine Records' founder Steven Walcott records this literally underground music (recorded in his basement), and makes it available to the public at an intriguing price of $6.49 a CD. I tried to find out how he does it.

All About Jazz : So, how did you get into this thing called jazz?

Steven Walcott: Me, I got into jazz when I was in college, but I never played jazz, I came up playing punk and weirdass rock. I had a small label in the '90s putting that kind of stuff out including a band that I started with someone else, but the band broke up and the label went under after the band broke up. After the label went down I worked on Wall Street and bought the house where we live, and this is important only because I have a studio in the basement of our house, so it makes the cost of producing music very low so I can afford to make less commercial oriented/more creative music. This is a great aspect to my label.

AAJ: Let's talk about the musicians on your label.

SW: There are a lot of great musicians, jazz and otherwise who are in New York and working really hard but not getting attention if they're not on a large nationally-known label. So even though New York City is very expensive and very competitive for musicians and labels, if you have the right setup, which I think I do, you can access to a lot of great musicians here in New York. I can only imagine having this kind of access maybe in Chicago.

It's not a good sign when there are so few labels working to get new jazz artists going. For example, that Niko Higgins record [From Eye to Ear (Engine, 2006)] is not going to do that great because no one has heard of him—so most labels never would have made it. I wanted to make it because he's only thirty years old, and if these guys don't get to make records they're not going to learn, and they're not going to develop, and that's not good for jazz.

AAJ: Looks like you have a special liking for saxophonist Andrew Lamb's work. He's featured on most of your releases.

SW: Yeah, I'm very excited to record Andrew Lamb, I think we have a strong collaboration going on. I met Warren Smith through him and Warren is a great musician who has done so much in his career. Andrew Lamb plays in the Henry Grimes trio, but I really want to get him to the point where he can get to Europe not as a sideman but as a trio leader. If people saw him live they would freak out—he blows hard, and his tone has to be witnessed to be believed. Paul Steinbeck is another young musician that has to make a few records to get a better feel for being a recording artist.

AAJ: Yeah, I liked Paul Steinbeck's album, Three Fifths [Engine, 2005]

SW: So, that's the basics, what else can I tell you? I'm working way too hard for way too little money, I'm really into what I'm doing, but it would be great to get some more support from listeners. I appreciate the Europeans as more intelligent music listeners so I'm thankful to you for giving me any space to express myself to that audience.

AAJ: Could you expound on the right set-up that you mentioned, for a record label?

SW: The right set-up is having your own studio in a place where you don't have to pay a lot, and to be able to make high quality recordings without paying a ton of money because this jazz is not going to produce a lot of money. So if you are beneficent then you can choose to make the music that smaller amounts of people like because you're not going broke doing it. A lot of much larger labels are bloated with costs and spend money on stupid things in my opinion.

I don't think it makes a lot of sense to go through the trouble of setting up a label and the years of work to get any attention at all just to sound like other labels. I use a lot of custom music gear that my brother has designed, he's a self-taught electrical engineer and I'm a self-taught music engineer. We try to sound different; by different I would say more "organic —not as slick as Blue Note or Verve, but strong, detailed and powerful recordings. I think the New Orleans Suite [Engine, 2006] is a great example of what I aspire to have my releases sound like. I'm obsessed with music and engineering. I listen to or mix music all day pretty much every day—all styles, etc.

This year I'm trying to find some musicians that take the learning and sophistication of jazz training and apply it to other genres. I'm starting to work with a guitarist that played with Sun Ra, and we're trying to take his tone and improvising style and mix that with loops, etc. to get something different going. I hope that works out, and that's an example of music that I want to add to just the straight avant stuff which I love, but which is a pretty small niche of music.

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