Leonardo Pavkovic: Nothing is Ordinary

Leonardo Pavkovic: Nothing is Ordinary
Chris M. Slawecki By

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Who’s to say that music has to be the most important thing in your life? Who says that? For our generation, music was important; for me, most certainly.  But maybe music is not supposed to be the most important thing.
More than any other person, Leonardo Pavkovic has made me write some crazy shit.

Pavkovic is the primal force behind the joyously eclectic MoonJune Records, which he established in 2001. "Established" may not be the right word: "I am truly an unusual and rules breaking call-it-record-company with a 'label' identity despite the fact that as a person and as a 'label' I go out of any categorization and labeling of what I do," he confided before our interview. "I am a stubborn Don Quixotesque romantic warrior and one-man-band army wearing many hats." 

MoonJune's mission statement:  The ongoing goal of MoonJune is to support music that transcends stylistic pigeon-holing, but operates within an evolutionary progressive musical continuum that explores boundaries of jazz, rock, avant, ethno, the unknown and anything in between.  

Pavkovic was born in Bosnia in the former Yugoslavia in 1962. He was raised in southern Italy and studied Portuguese and Brazilian literature at the University of Bari (Italy) and Afro-Portuguese History and Literature at the University of Luanda (Angola, Africa) en route to becoming fluent in six languages. Before MoonJune, he translated artistic and scientific literature from/to Italian, Portuguese and Serbo-Croatian, and published two volumes of original poetry. Pavkovic established MoonJune Management and Booking, now MoonJune Music, in 2000, copping its name from "Moon in June," a Robert Wyatt tune on the third album by Soft Machine, one of his numerous prog-rock-jazz-fusion inspirations.

MoonJune Records is only part of Pavkovic's impressive music business reach. As a booking agent, he has coordinated more than 2,000 concerts in more than 50 countries worldwide. Even though MoonJune Records consumes a great deal of his energy and time, he still does not consider it his "main business"; instead, it's just one more chapter in his lifelong diary of musical surprises.

MoonJune Music is the musical equivalent of Forrest Gump's proverbial box of chocolates. You never know what you're going to get: An improvisational jazz-rock quintet built around guitar, trumpet, and bass clarinet, named for a North Korean dictator and the martial arts style instructed by Grandmaster "Iron" Kim (Iron Kim Style, 2010); jazz-rock ensemble fusion led by Israel's version of Walter Becker and Donald Fagen (Breaking the Cycle, Marbin, 2011); or ancient Indonesian temple ritual music and traditional gamelan percussion employed as rhythmic loops upon which jazz players can solo almost forever (Demi Masa, simakDialog, 2009), to name just a few of its far-reaching flavors.

Consequently, MoonJune Record reviews seriously stretch a writer's analytic and descriptive faculties, not to mention ears—this writer's, at least.

In late 2017, Pavkovic assembled the twenty-five track compilation It Must Be Jazz to celebrate the label's fourth-place finish in DownBeat's annual "Best Jazz Label" poll (up from seventh place in 2016) and released it as a free digital download to thank the label's fans. Its title track was jointly composed by guitarist Allan Holdsworth, keyboardist Alan Pasqua, bassist Jimmy Haslip and drummer Chad Wackerman for Blues for Tony, their 2010 ensemble tribute to powerhouse jazz-rock drummer Tony Williams who passed away in 1997. This high-voltage piece of electric jazz-rock fusion was born from sentiment and experience: Holdsworth replaced John McLaughlin for a year as the Tony Williams Lifetime guitarist, and both Holdsworth and Pasqua were members of The New Tony Williams Lifetime.

This Might Be Jazz opens just as majestically, with the title track to Indonesian pianist Dwiki Dharmawan's landmark Pasar Klewer, regarded one of the top jazz albums of 2016. Dharmawan's playing, especially when accompanied by just bass and drums, sounds absolutely ferocious as it splatters chords and rhythms all over the ivories, mixing up mainstream, free and avant-garde jazz piano. "Indonesia is the place of 'ultimate diversity,'" the pianist explained upon Pasar Klewer's release. "Here, the urban cultures accelerate the 'acculturation' process, which generates changes in cultural patterns and creates new forms of musical expression. Pasar Klewer is the answer to my search for 'the difference,' and also a valuable answer to our modern crises and urban uprooting. The album's distinctive sound originates from an ancient Gamelan tonal system called Salendro, known in the Karawitan traditional music of the Sundanese, Javanese and Balinese."

Pavkovic's uncompromising and knowledgeable devotion to music has earned in return the same affection from MoonJune's musicians. "Leonardo's perspective on music has served to encourage and inspire musicians throughout Indonesia to create the music on a higher level," explains Ligro guitarist Agam Hamzah. "MoonJune Records has been great in its impact, helping to orchestrate so many positive changes for the benefit of the Indonesian music scene and its artists. Being associated with Leonardo and MoonJune Records as a musician and as a friend is an honor and a privilege."

"Like its namesake orb, MoonJune steadily casts its light across a commercially ravaged musical landscape without ever capitulating to the market, a rare paragon of musical virtue in ever more culturally bankrupt times," suggests guitarist Dennis Rea (Moraine, Iron Kim Style, Zhongyu).

"Because his vision and erudition know no physical or mental boundaries, MoonJune might seem an oddity founded by a starry-eyed idealist, a rather utopian proposition in our increasingly prefab musical world," muses guitarist Michel Delville (The Wrong Object, Machine Mass, DouBt). "But, to me, MoonJune is not just a record label pushing out alternative music. It feels more like a family of like-minded musicians keen to explore new grounds while collaborating with each other and engaging in a dialogue between the past and the present."

How enthusiastic is Pavkovic about music and MoonJune? After we finalized the following 12,000 word interview, he mused, "It's a bit LONG, but I have so much to say and what I said is only 1.75% of what I would be able to say." Leonardo Pavkovic exemplifies a profoundly personal yet widely public relationship with music. It's hard to imagine how the future of this music could be in more caring, capable hands than his.

All About Jazz: Where's the best place to begin the MoonJune story? 

Leonardo Pavkovic: When I first started the label, I had no background in the music business whatsoever. After I moved from Italy to New York City in August 1990, I met the renowned Brazilian graphic artist and photographer Fernando Natalici, who created the legendary "Studio T" graphic design studio in the mid '70s. Studio T was almost a cult phenomenon in downtown Manhattan. Fernando himself was a living encyclopedia of virtually everything that happened in the New York music scene during the 1970's and '80's, and soon we became inseparable friends. (Later, I became his business partner). Studio T was known for its large clientele in the city's music business community, so I was always in the company of great musicians, concert promoters, and record labels owners and executives, from majors and from independents.

In the early 2000s, I was briefly involved with the NYC-based label Jazz Magnet Records through a jazz publicist and music industry veteran, the legendary Jim Eigo. This experience was both inspiring and beneficial. Motivated by that experience, I decided to start my own record label and released my first album, a live recording of the legendary saxophonist Elton Dean, who I'd known since the mid '80's, while I was living in Italy. Two other live albums of young Italian progressive rock bands quickly followed: Finisterre's Storybook and D.F.A.'s Work In Progress Live.

AAJ: You had to know that yours wasn't the typical music industry startup story?

LP: Normally, labels will start like this: They have some capital in the bank or some wealthy business partners, they have an entertainment lawyer, they have an accountant, they have a marketing plan, they have a distribution company. I didn't have any of this. I only had some basic disposable income, which allowed me to pay some advances and cover CD manufacturing, and a lot of contacts (also thanks to Jim Eigo).

I "debuted" as a label at the progressive rock festival NEARFest in June 2001, where I had discovered D.F.A. the year before. I learned immediately that I was a "Mr. Nobody," which motivated me to promote my label ferociously.

In a matter of months, I developed an immense array of press contacts in both the jazz and progressive rock worlds. To capitalize on these new resources, I sent out hundreds upon hundreds of promos of my first three releases, to generate attention for both the albums and my newly budding company. All three albums received a great deal of critical acclaim and generated hundreds of reviews in more than thirty countries—especially D.F.A.'s brilliant live album, which received an extraordinary amount of accolades, and from critics beyond just the progressive rock world.

AAJ: People almost always assume that musicians are expressing themselves through their recordings. But can record label owners and producers express themselves through their work, too?

LP: I've always considered life as a sort of improvisation. Life is like that famous collaboration between John Coltrane and Rashied Ali—where Rashied Ali represents the beat of life in his drumming, and John Coltrane improvises on top of it (Ed. Note: "Interstellar Space," 1974, on Impulse!). That's primarily how I operate in life: I started with that sort of "organic" mentality. I never thought, "I will start a record label." Or, "I will get involved in music management or become a booking agent." MoonJune came into being from me simply helping friends, and managing to find my way through this initial phase—with some surprisingly good luck, and a strong dose of magic. I am a person who has doggedly pursued my passions my entire life; perhaps this small-scale launch's success had as much to do with hard work and determination as anything else, really.

AAJ: When did you begin to see the first returns on this hard work?

LP: In 2000, I had this crazy idea to help my old friend Elton Dean, to sort of reform or resurrect the legendary Soft Machine based, in large part, on information I found on the internet about a "one-off" show of the Soft Ware project featuring Elton on sax, Keith Tippett on piano, Hugh Hopper on bass guitar and John Marshall on drums.

So I reconnected with Elton on New Year's Day, 2000, and in June of that year he performed in New York City at a jazz festival with drummer Joe Gallivan, bassist Marcio Mattos and saxophonist Evan Parker. Elton stayed a few extra days at my place in the East Village, and he also met Jim Eigo. Perhaps acting on the good vibes of the situation, Elton asked Jim and me if we would be willing to help him with Soft Ware in the US. Elton asked me to talk to Keith Tippett, John Marshall, and Hugh Hopper, who I already knew from his visits to New York. They were all available and excited, except for Keith, who said he would consider it as a possible, occasional special project but not as a steady gig.

Keith's failure to make a solid commitment got Elton and I fantasizing about the fourth member. Mike Ratledge, the legendary Soft Machine keyboardist and one of my all-time personal music heroes, had made it clear that he wasn't interested in being a part of any recording or live performance music since leaving Soft Machine in 1976. We continued our thinking, dominated by a keyboard player to fill the fourth member role.

Later that same summer, I stumbled across three progressive rock festivals in the US. Around this same time, Andrea Soncini, an Italian journalist who handled the Italian progressive rock band Finisterre on his label and management and had been asking me to help get them bookings in the US, was supposed to meet me at one of these festivals. As it turned out, Andrea was unable to attend, due to personal reasons, and gave me his festival ticket. On that festival's opening day, the second band who hit the stage blew me away after only five minutes and in the break following their set, I met that band, D.F.A. from Italy, and congratulated them on their mind-blowing performance. Italian is my second native tongue, and we quickly fell into great conversation and friendship. We hung out together in New York City for several days thereafter.


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