One night in the early '70s, saxophonist Trevor Watts
and drummer John Stevens
were playing a concert in West Berlin. After the show, a tall, elegant, German man by the name of Manfred Schiek asked if he could buy one of their records. But they didn't have one. "There was an oil crisis at the time and vinyl was expensive," Schiek explained during an interview at his home in Berlin. "In England the story was, if you brought an old record, then you could get a new one. They used the old material for new pressings. But most of the records were used to make rock music and not jazz."
So Schiek started a record label. He called it Vinyl but later changed it to View because of copyright issues. He traveled often to London where he rented a studio and began recording British free jazz musicians like Keith Tippett, guitarist Allan Holdsworth and, of course, Watts and Stevens. "During this time it was very cheap to fly to London," he said. "Only [today's] 100 euros including a hotel for four days."
A few years later, in 1984, Schiek stepped away from View and started three new labels: Atonal, Dossier and Konnex. Dossier was reserved for techno and Atonal featured classical avant-garde groups like Art Zoyd and pianist David Tudor, who recorded one of the label's best selling records, the 1993 album David Tudor Plays Cage and Tudor. Schiek had read in the German magazine Der Spiegel that John Cage could only sell about 2,000 copies of his records, but Tudor's recording of Cage's music sold about a thousand more. This bit of news provided a stroke of pride, as well as a small financial boost that allowed Schiek to continue producing the music that he loved the most, jazz, a genre showcased on the third label, Konnex.
During the label's 25-year existence hundreds of records have been released under the Konnex name. These days Schiek simply selects recordings that he likes from among the many that pass by his desk, but in the early days, he was traveling to New York ten times a year to record the likes of Cecil Taylor, Sonny Fortune, pianist Borah Bergman, bassist Joe Fonda and clarinetist Perry Robinson. But he also went out to support Germany-based players such as saxophonists Peter Brötzmann and Charlie Mariano, who died this past June. On one occasion Brötzmann had a gig at the Knitting Factory with Bergman and saxophonist Thomas Borgmann. He was hoping to be able to promote his new record at the concert but Schiek told him it wouldn't be ready in time. "I had the record at home," he explained, "and I went to New York with a box of records and I made a surprise during the concert. Peter looked at me and said 'Schiek! What a surprise! Unbelievable! It's not so easy to surprise me, but it's done by you now.'"
At 66, Schiek doesn't travel as much as he once did, though his 14-year-old daughter Vanessa, who often joined him on those New York City excursions, would like to. Among other illnesses, Schiek suffers from Myelodysplastic syndrome or MDS, the disease from which saxophonist Michael Brecker died in 2007. Patients normally live for only five years after diagnoses, but Schiek has nearly completed his seventh and though symptoms such as chronic fatigue make it difficult, he continues to release 15 to 20 albums per year on Konnex, running the label essentially by himself.
This year saw the release of the European Jazz Ensemble's 30th Anniversary Tour 2006, a landmark album featuring 15 musicians from ten different countries, including saxophonists Alan Skidmore, Gerd Dudek and Mariano. But the label's varied mix of 2009 releases also included an assortment of younger, emerging talents such as the Berlin-based guitarist Kim Efert. On his trio album Beamer, the lush palette of Samuel Rohrer's drums merge with Peter Ehwald's tenor saxophone and clarinet and Efert's guitar in an amalgam of vivacious tracks. And then there's the pianist Clemens Orth who includes Cole Porter and Radiohead among his own rhythmically sophisticated compositions on his solo CD Here Now.
Schiek has a great appreciation for all the artists he features on his label, but the ones who really get him excited are those who bring an unexpected alacrity to the music, the ones who regard free jazz with the same unbound devotion that he does, artists like the American pianist John Blum. "It's the dynamic in the music, for me it's the most important thing," Schiek said. "There's a word in German, 'spannung,' it's like if you see a movie and you sit there and you wait for the next step. That's John Blum."
'Spannung' translates to both 'voltage' and 'suspense' in English, two elements that can surely be found in Who Begat Eye, Blum's solo disc released on Konnex over the summer. "He has done something that very few record labels are willing to do these days," Blum said, "That is to release a solo CD of a relatively unknown musician. The fact that he believes in my work enough to take a chance means a lot to me personally as well as professionally."
Schiek likens Blum to Japanese piano star Yosuke Yamashita. Though he has never released a Yamashita album on Konnex, he says that the pianist's music embodies the spirit that he most admires. In the '80s, Schiek saw Yamashita perform often, including one especially memorable concert at the Berlin Philharmonic. "They made 50 minutes of power music," he recalled. "They start, it's unbelievable and they stop. And then, for a long timesilence. The people think 'what's that?' Then after a minute or so "Yeahhh!" All the people scream."