Celeste Sunderland By

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We're highly supportive and have very good relationships with our artists. —Richard McDonnell, President, MAXJAZZ
Sometimes people are meant to take different roles within their passions. Richard McDonnell started as a saxophonist and ended up with his own record label. What began as a side project five years ago, turned into a full-time endeavor. Last March McDonnell was able to retire from a successful career in investment banking, and focus completely on his passion — jazz.

The St. Louis native felt a desire to contribute to the art by supporting some of the local musicians in ways other than going to see their live performances or buying their CDs. One artist provided the deciding moment. McDonnell met Detroit singer Laverne Butler at the now defunct New York jazz club Fat Tuesdays. They stayed in touch, and when Butler's label went under, the ideas brewing in McDonnell's head began to take shape.

"She was available. I liked her voice. She was well known as a vocalist. That was the moment of truth. That was when I said 'I'm going to go for it. I'm going to do something of significance here.'"

MAXJAZZ launched with Butler's album Blues In the City which reached number one on the Gavin Jazz Chart. McDonnell continued to record new artists in his home studio, and soon the success of the venture allowed MAXJAZZ to go national. Three more albums were released, one of which, Carla Cook's It's All About Love , received a Grammy nomination.

With a mission to make jazz more accessible, MAXJAZZ began with a vocal series because McDonnell considers the human voice the most familiar instrument to mainstream listeners. He quickly followed with a piano series.

Bruce Barth's East and West kicked off the series, followed by Peter Martin's Something Unexpected. The most recent piano release, Jessica Williams' This Side Up , featuring Victor Lewis on drums and Ray Drummond on bass, resounds with deep feeling and honors some of the pianist's biggest influences. "Miles To Go" tributes Miles Davis and "The Judge" is for bassist Milt Hinton. A fourth contribution to the piano series comes out this month with Mulgrew Miller's highly anticipated label debut and first recording as a leader in six years, The Sequel.

McDonnell says the next series for MAXJAZZ will most likely be a horn series or perhaps a string series, focusing on guitar. Even as McDonnell adds new series to his label, MAXJAZZ continues to add new recordings to the existing series. A new album from Cook called Simply Natural , comes out October 1st. Selected because of their musical ability, entertainment value, and general goodness, MAXJAZZ artists resonate with fullness and mature vitality. "We're looking for a distinctive sound, a distinctive style," explained McDonnell. "Something people are attracted to but also different from what they would normally hear."

MAXJAZZ gives the artist a great deal of control over their recordings, allowing them to take the lead on the concept, song selection, and theme. "I understand something about the artist's mind, body and spirit because I used to try to do it myself," he explained. "We're highly supportive and have very good relationships with our artists."

The label offers live and studio recordings as well as a popular holiday disc. The elegant, tri-fold CD packaging opens to reveal exquisite black and white photography by Jimmy Katz, and delightful, informative liner notes by Mary Ellen Sullivan. A MAXJAZZ CD is an entire experience.

"Visually we're very distinctive," McDonnell said. "As a kid I found album covers intriguing. It's fun to look at the cover, read the liner notes and listen to the music all at the same time. When we squeezed it down to a little square we lost something. We're trying to do what we can with the square that we have." The attractive cases add to the strategy of brand recognition, an important element in business survival.

"The business of selling music these days is difficult," McDonnell said. "The retailers are not seeing the traffic they're accustomed to."

In a struggling economy, MAXJAZZ not only survives, they're growing, driven by a group of dedicated workers — McDonnell and Barth do the A&R work, two people in Chicago take care of sales and marketing, and there's a publicist in New York. "There are a lot of strategic decisions to be made," McDonnell says, "I want to make them carefully, but I don't want to be pedestrian about it. I want to be very active."

Visit MAXJAZZ on the web at www.maxjazz.com .


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