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."

Now, to top it all off, there are three Hats. "Over the years," explains HatHut's official history, "Uehlinger has introduced several new label names under the HatHut umbrella, in order to indicate the changing styles and musical attitudes of its artists. In the past these included HatHut, hatMUSICS, hatART, as well as the three designations currently under production: hatOLOGY (for Jazz and related improvised music), hat[now]ART (to represent Contemporary Composition and New Music), and hatNOIR (to serve as a home for fresh, unpredictable, innovative, uncategorizable projects)." Sample each in the reviews accompanying this feature. But don't just read about them.

Economics are an ongoing problem. The Hat history site also contains an account of the label's adventures with various corporate sponsors, and of the necessity of such sponsorship for the label to survive. Nevertheless (or consequently), Uehlinger has instituted a new Midprice program: "Beginning in September 2003 each month different CDs from the extensive Hat Hut catalog will be offered as midprice-CDs. These will be selected monthly from hat[now]ART numbers 101 through 136, hatOLOGY numbers 501 through 564, and hatNOIR 801 through 803. 20 titles of the series hatOLOGY will be offered as midprice-CDs in September to celebrate 20 years of distribution through Harmonia Mundi. 10 more titles of the series hat(now)ART will follow in October 2003. Amounts are limited! Watch the Hat Hut website each month."

Get them while they last. Long before I was a reviewer, I was an ardent fan of HatHut Records. Never did I see or hear one that didn't give me a quickening of anticipation at the sight of that unmistakable red (and now orange) spine, and never did I find one that ended up disappointing me. Werner X. Uehlinger has been, against immense odds, publishing outstanding non-commercial music for over 25 years now. Here's hoping for another 25, and many more beyond.

25 Great Hats

Morton Feldman
For John Cage
hat[now]ART 124

Josje Ter Haar (violin) and John Snijders (piano) work through nearly seventy minutes of Feldman's airy minimalist clusters: mostly two-note and three-note intervals, repeated and melded and transmuted into others. It is music of immense detail and concentration, rewarding careful attention and inducing the sort of hypnotic reverie that Cage himself identified as the purpose of music: to sober and quiet the mind, making it susceptible to divine influences. The instruments are sounded cleanly and quietly, without bombast or vibrato. Much of the time they follow one another sequentially, note for note or small cluster for small cluster, and then suddenly intertwine and work off one another, but only for an instant. It is music that brings you closer, makes you sit up and pay attention to the details. In an age when most of what passes for music is hammering rant that demands your attention with such stentorian bullying that the mind recoils from it, it is refreshing to find this small, clear, inviting music that, while making no demands whatsoever, ends up delivering a great deal more than all that shouting.

Paul Bley, Franz Koglmann, Gary Peacock
hatOLOGY 564

Mysteriously beautiful music from the mysterious Annette Peacock, the master composer, occasional singer and recording artist, and former wife of both Gary Peacock (bass) and Paul Bley (piano). This is muted, understated, but deeply emotional and personal music. Lyrics are not sung or included in the text except for a few beguiling samples in the liner notes, matching the intense but subtle passion of the music: "So I will die and everything will fade away, / Nothing ever was, anyway . . ." It is all played without overt expressionism or empty fanfare, but is as powerful as one might expect given the mastery of these three players—and especially given the circumstances of the composer's relationship with two of the three (Franz Koglmann adds flugelhorn, trumpet, and, presumably, a bit of detachment.) Bley is really at the center, as is fitting since Annette Peacock wrote a good bit of this music, according to Art Lange's liner notes, as "environments he had to perpetuate." Gary Peacock and Koglmann perpetuate them as well, lingering in the landscapes of wistfulness, regret, and quiet resolution.

Albert Ayler
Lörrach, Paris, 1966
hatOLOGY 573

After nearly forty years, the music of Albert Ayler sounds more than ever like the music of celebration—so much so that it's hard to remember the fire-breathing subversive revolutionary he was supposed to be in the Sixties. Joe McPhee once told me that when he first heard Ayler, he was transfixed by the colors—by the wild range and expressiveness of this music. It is lost none of its power. I heard this recording many years ago and it had the limited range of an old audience recording; however, the transformation in this edition is nothing short of miraculous. The disc was remastered by Hat's crack engineer Peter Pfister in 2001, and the results are astounding. Talk about colors. I never had the privilege of seeing Albert Ayler in person, but I can hear this: Ayler with his brother Don Ayler (trumpet) and classical violinist Michel Samson forming a frontline of whirling dervish intensity, creating what Peter Niklas Wilson in his liner notes calls "free spiritual music." Glorious.

Franz Koglmann / Lee Konitz
We Thought About Duke
hatOLOGY 543

A provocative and revealing exploration of some of Duke Ellington's lesser-known numbers, including "Lament for Javanette" and "Love Is In My Heart," plus several gems from Ellington associates, such as Juan Tizol's "Pyramid," Billy Strayhorn's "Dirge," and more. The arrangements open new perspectives on this music, owing to the unconventional instrumentation—in fact, two unconventional instrumentations: half of this disc is performed by a quintet of Konitz (alto sax), Tony Coe (clarinet and tenor sax), Koglmann (trumpet, flugelhorn), Bernard Stangl (guitar), and Klaus Koch (bass); the other half teams Konitz and Koglmann with Rudolf Ruschel (trombone) and Raoul Herget (tuba). The music is presented not as a straight-faced theme-and-improvisations tribute, but as a series of quite empathetic variations on Ellington's beguilingly sidelong melodies. These are full of imagination—cf. Koglmann's wonderfully apropos semi-quote of "Lonely Woman" during "Lament for Javanette"—and are often marked by rubato passages that open up the field for new approaches. Fascinating.

James Tenney
Music for Violin & Piano
hat[now]ART 120
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