Enja Records


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Matthias Winckelmann's favorite recording of the hundreds he's made is the one just finished. Over the years, he's documented music from all over the world and of many different stripes and has always been eloquent and passionate. His label Enja has been in existence for 38 years and a look at the catalogue tells you that the excitement is still there.

In 1971, two longtime Munich jazz fans, Winckelmann and Horst Weber, made their first recording together, Black Glory, by pianist Mal Waldron. The Enja label actually got going a year later, in 1972 and after Waldron followed European and Japanese musicians including trombonist Albert Mangelsdorff, trumpeter Terumasa Hino and pianist Masahiko Sato. And what did Enja stand for? "Well," says Winckelmann, "that is a funny thing. It didn't originally stand for anything. I sat with my wife in the kitchen and we thought, 'Now, what are we going to call this newborn baby?' I thought of all kinds of abbreviations and came up with these four letters and later found a meaning to it, which meant European New Jazz and then we went into American old jazz right away."

Winckelmann had, since the late '50s, been exposed to many US jazz musicians when growing up in Frankfurt—then the jazz capital of the country. He also attended Munich University as a graduate student in economics and sociology. He says, "I had a seminal experience when I listened to my first Charlie Parker record. It totally turned my head around and still does to this day. From that day on, I knew that I wanted to spend my life in connection with jazz."

Weber had promoted jazz concerts in his native Aachen and worked as a freelance clothes designer. As a contributor to the German Fashion Institute he got to travel to Japan in the late '60s where he established many contacts with the jazz world.

How did the label get the finances to begin? Says Winckelmann, "I talked to my bank and told them, 'Look, I want to start a record label and I need like 20,000 dollars.' They gave me a big laugh and said, 'OK, but not from us.' I simply had to round up that money on the private side, which worked out and I paid everything back after two years. Luckily, Horst had a very good relationship with several of the largest Japanese record companies. We licensed our first Mal Waldron record immediately to the Victor Company in Japan. I had a little capital left immediately for the second record. We just went step by step in those days."

Enja soon recorded great players like Tommy Flanagan, Chet Baker, Freddie Hubbard, Abdullah Ibrahim (then Dollar Brand), Bennie Wallace, Abbey Lincoln, Kenny Barron and many others. At the Munich club Domicile, Winckelmann got to do live recordings with visiting artists such as Charles Tolliver, Pepper Adams and Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis. There they also did the very first recording by guitarist John Scofield. The label owners also sought to acquire finished tapes and thus released projects by Eric Dolphy, Charles Mingus, Gil Evans, Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins, Elvin Jones and Hampton Hawes.

In early 1986 Winckelmann and Weber decided—due to differing ideas on where to take the label—to separate and work individually. Winckelmann increased his visits to New York and came to produce an average of 30 albums annually. Recordings were released by many major artists: Kenny Barron, Ray Anderson, Wayne Krantz, Bobby Previte, McCoy Tyner, Arthur Blythe, Elvin Jones, Lee Konitz and countless others. Debut recordings were done by Maria Schneider, Abraham Burton, Ingrid Jensen and Kevin Mahogany.

Winckelmann now oversees all of Enja activities with the assistance of a small staff that includes Werner Aldinger. They do not seem to have let the troubled world economies dampen their passion for broadly diverse musics.

Jim West of Justin Time calls Winckelmann a "friend" and "mentor" and recalls a time when the two were in Montreal and West played a cassette of the Montreal Jubilation Gospel Choir. "I thought I'd have to peel Matthias off the roof of the car, he was that excited. He licensed the recording for Europe and got the group touring in Europe to great press. All of that was organized by Matthias!" Winckelmann also continues to find an extraordinary collection of musicians from around the world. Oud player Rabih Abou-Khalil is one of the giants on the label and, in some sense, the player who got the label thinking about music on a broader scope. Renaud Garcia-Fons is a French bassist whose family is of Catalonian origin. Fons—whose new album, La Linea del Sur, was just released—is taken with the Enja recording process.

"[Matthias] trusts the musician, allows him the freedom to express his music and has no pre- conceived notions."

To a catalogue that already has some 500 titles, Enja will add nearly 25 more through the end of 2009. These include a modern ballad collection from Israeli singer Efrat Alony; new music from Polish alto saxophonist Angelika Niescier; a 2008 reunion of a band led by alto saxophonist Charlie Mariano (who passed last month)—with guitarist Philip Catherine and pianist Jasper Van't Hoff—that had not played together in over 20 years; a 'garage music' trio led by alto saxophonist Lucien Dubuis featuring guitarist Marc Ribot and a rare outing from drummer Alvin Queen.

Aldinger has started a new sub-label called Yellowbird. Says Aldinger, "I'm involved with all sorts of extensions and complements to straight jazz—"singer-songwriter, world music, progressive and more." Aldinger brought Jazz Passenger leader/saxophonist Roy Nathanson and his group Sotto Voce to the label and their Subway Moon was just released.

Enja also has a substantial publishing division that oversees administration of copyrights from many countries and the sales of sheet music and scores. In North America, Enja has had a number of distributors including PolyGram, Koch, Justin Time and now Allegro. Forrest Faubion of Allegro calls Winckelmann "a very intelligent businessman who really seems to be driven by a desire to help produce the next great record and usually does." Looking at the catalogue plus the list of upcoming releases, one is struck with, of course, the diversity, but also by the sheer fact that after all these years, Enja is still at it.

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