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Hep to HatHut

Robert Spencer By

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It all started with Joe McPhee, and what better place to start? Werner X. Uehlinger, a Swiss music lover, heard Joe's music and was determined to make sure it was preserved and reached the widest possible audience. In 1975, he founded HatHut Records to put out McPhee's music. He did that, but we can also be eternally grateful that at some point early on he decided to bring us the work of other artists as well—artists of like mind and like soul, although their music would be as diverse as the mountains, the sea, and the air: music from Cecil Taylor, Steve Lacy, Karlheinz Stockhausen, John Cage, Anthony Braxton, Morton Feldman, Matthew Shipp, Jimmy Giuffre, David Liebman, Archie Shepp, Lou Harrison, Ellery Eskelin, and so many others—over 300 LP's and CD's in all since those palmy days spent producing Joe McPhee records.

Virtually from the beginning, even when he was quite strapped for cash, Uehlinger emphasized not only inner beauty (no matter how unanticipated or hard won) but outer beauty as well: HatHut LP's and CD's have always been brilliantly packaged, with abundant treats for the eyes as well as the ears—not to mention liner notes of provocative acuity and grace from some of the most ingenious individuals writing in this field. I never had the privilege of owning any of the LP's, but I had the wonderful opportunity of exploring the HatHut collection of a musician friend some time ago; after savoring the sumptuousness of those boxed sets that he has treasured for years, I can only hope that his friends know nothing of the existence of those discs and that his apartment has a secure burglar alarm system.

Anyway, you can tell from the name-drops of Stockhausen, Cage, Feldman others above that although HatHut's roots are with McPhee in post-Coltrane, post-Ayler, post-Ornette jazz, the label has by no means restricted itself to this field. Perhaps such a development was a logical result of involvement with masters like Anthony Braxton, whose sensibilities were always divided between, or perhaps more precisely a unification of, the disparate ethos of, say, Louis Armstrong, Coltrane, and (quite explicitly) Stockhausen himself. To do justice to Braxton's music, as Uehlinger has superbly in both the "jazz" and "classical" arenas, one has to have not only a foot in both camps, but a profound awareness and understanding of, not to mention a love for, the often unexpected and sometimes even forbidding music that may result. HatHut has never been afraid of concrete music or noise effects, having imbibed thoroughly Cage's philosophy that music can be found anywhere by anyone willing and able to open his ears and listen ; but what may ultimately be most delightful about the now-magnificently sprawling Hat oeuvre is the utterly winning quality of it all, the astounding and stringent quality of even the most experimental releases, that could never possibly be mistaken for mere gimmickry or fakery. And those experiments, of course, coexist in the Hat catalogue with numerous other endeavors that, whatever else they may be, are always in their own way and with their own character quite abundantly glorious.

The musicians knew this before anyone else. Otherwise why would they have trekked to the Alpine wilds of Switzerland to make recordings, when so many other opportunities were available to them closer to hand? Clearly they knew that Werner X. Uehlinger was offering them an opportunity to capture their sound more perfectly, with more crystalline fidelity, than virtually anyone else—and arguably, many if not most of the musicians in the HatHut catalogue have never been better recorded, no matter how long, varied, and abundantly recorded their careers have been. The Hat releases of every one of them—particularly Braxton, Lacy, and McPhee himself—stand among the finest releases in their catalogues, so that if you were to assemble a list of the essential recordings of each, it simply wouldn't be accurate or complete without the Hats.

So that even if HatHut Records never reach a large audience, each one is a jewel unto itself. Uehlinger explains that this has all been part of the plan: "I cannot compete with the big companies, going in the same directions, trying to compete for a mass audience. My intention is to work within the field of the minorities, of the marginal. I think there are, worldwide, enough people who enjoy such marginal music or arts, to support them. I think it's important also, for me, to take big risks, and learn from my errors, in order to go on to the next step. It's important to listen to the musicians and composers. I feel that HatHut is run like an art gallery, where a musician or composer has from time to time the chance to display his current level of musical development...or even a past level he was never able to present."

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