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Michael Janisch: The Whirlwind, Paradigm Shift and London's Label of the Moment

Phil Barnes By

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However you look at it Michael Janisch is an extraordinarily driven, highly motivated, success story. Not only has he been the founder, owner and force behind London's wonderful Whirlwind Recordings for the last five years, but he has also just released one of 2015's finest albums in the adventurous 2CD set Paradigm Shift. It's no coincidence that the label takes Janisch's nickname "the whirlwind"—at the time of the interview in late October he was two thirds of the way through a 30 plus date UK tour in support of the album, a tour that, naturally, he had found time to manage including all of the day-to-day logistics!

Janisch is a comfortable leader with a musician's attention to the finest details, that is a powerful combination. He also has an ability to know the limits of his own knowledge and has a trusted inner circle of people and friends, whose contributions he clearly values and regularly refers to during our conversation.

"I think my background comes into it—I was captain of the sports teams I was on such as football and track, so I'm suited in that role and comfortable as a leader. I've got no problem with taking a task on and seeing it completed, even if it means I have to take on the entire project. That sort of thing never psyched me out and feels natural."

The initial impetus for Janisch setting up the label was the pragmatism of keeping control of his own master tapes, but he was quick to recognise the possibility of releasing material by other, sympathetic, musicians after Patrick Cornelius invited him to release his Fierce collection. Further releases followed with wider recognition coming from the release of Jeff Williams' Another Time album:

"It really started branching out... and once he [Jeff Williams] came on board that really picked it up, because then Phil Robson said to me 'you're releasing Jeff's album, oh I see.' After that a lot of the younger guys on the scene started approaching me...."

The landmark releases of the label since that point have been many but include Jim Hart's The Cloudmakers Trio with Ralph Alessi Live in London at Pizza Express, John O'Gallagher's The Anton Webern Project, Partisans Swamp and the Mike Gibbs + Twelve Play Gil Evans collection. The last of these was also a personal landmark for Janisch as a producer:

"The Mike Gibbs album was a 12 piece and that was a really big one for me because I produced that record on the day, worked with Mike to prepare... the concept of the album, it was a big undertaking. I didn't know a lot of those guys... a lot of big personalities from across the eclectic London scene—free players, straight ahead guys and then all under Mike Gibbs... That was a turning point for me as a producer; it gave me a lot of confidence."

It is arguable that Janisch's talent and credibility as a musician has enhanced his natural aptitude for running the business side—he can never be accused of not understanding the perspective of the working musician because he is one. This allows him to get involved and talk on the same level to musicians as someone who goes through the same hassles and irritations that they do for the love of their music. It also helps that Janisch treats Whirlwind releases as he would like his own to be handled, something that has helped foster a sense of community around the label:

"I want to make it clear that all of them are special to me. I'm proud of every single one -especially the ones I played on, produced or was in the studio... it's as if they were my own album. I think of all the good memories preparing, all the back and forth's with the artist. The label is a real community—there's a good vibe between all of the artists. We go to Jazzahead [conference] every year and I think last year 18 Whirlwind artists attended. It was a lot of fun, everyone got along so great like a big family."

It's a level of involvement that is unusual, clearly adds value and which his frequent billing as "Executive Producer" scarcely does justice to. Initial breaks may have come about through personal, musical, connections but these were opportunities that were not clear and needed to be recognised as such and grasped—which is always more straightforward in hindsight when success seems assured. For example, Whirlwind taking on John Escreet's classic Sabotage and Celebration came about during the course of a walk around a Brooklyn Park with the gifted pianist:

"By the end of our long walk around Prospect Park we had made a plan for a new record and neither one of us was thinking of it before I got there. He just asked me how the label was doing and one thing led to another when he started telling me plans for his new record -I thought to myself that would be amazing to have on Whirlwind. So I was involved with that entire project which was hard for the label because it was one of the more costly budgets. Amazing record, really amazing."

The album Whirlwind released with Lee Konitz, Dan Tepfer, Jeff Williams and Janisch himself, First Meeting, was similar in that it showed an ability to recognise and take advantage of good fortune with a lot of hard work:

"I was doing this Pizza Express [Jazz Club] residency and I knew Dan Tepfer for some time. It just so happened that he was going to be doing these duo gigs with Lee Konitz in Europe so I pitched the idea and it came through... and then I got to play with Lee Konitz which for me was a career highlight. The first time playing with him, live on stage for a live recording... talk about putting yourself out there! He didn't mention any tunes, we didn't have a set list, it was a life changing gig."

To fully benefit from this good fortune Whirlwind had to be capable of delivering a credible product—something they have now demonstrated frequently and at many levels. Hold a Whirlwind CD in your hand and the packaging feels substantial, the impression of quality coming through the well-made, colourful cardboard sleeves rather than nasty, brittle, jewel boxes. While Whirlwind could not reasonably be expected to match better resourced labels for the breadth of virtual formats that they can offer, they were quick to offer the main lossless formats alongside MP3 before many of their UK independent peers. Their slick, professionally constructed web site carries their entire back catalogue and is replicated across the world to ensure that the speed of response is consistently high. If analogue is your thing then it looks as if Whirlwind will soon cater to your vinyl needs as well:

"We're on the brink of starting a vinyl wing. I've been toying with it for some time and I've just decided to go about it on my own. So vinyl is going to come on and some of the key releases that we've already put out are going to get vinyl pressings—certain releases that might have an audience."

This all sits well with perhaps the biggest reason for the success of the label—its general emphasis on sound quality in its recordings, specifically ensuring that the dynamic range of the music is maintained. Central to this was Janisch's work with his "old friend from the Mid-West" Tyler McDiarmid to establish the broad sound of the label:

"He's one of the premier sound guys in New York—he's edited, mixed and mastered about 85% of the Whirlwind releases I would say. We grew up together, we practiced together, we recorded together, we're really close friends... and I just love his sound concept. I think he's one of the special guys, a modern version of a James Farber [legendary sound engineer], one of the most in-demand guys in the States for sound. He's still cranking stuff out, he just did The New York Standards Quartet, but the problem with him now is that he's in a really cool creative pop band called San Fermin so they are always on world tour, he has three kids and he's the soundman for Saturday Night Live... he's there from Tuesday to Saturday night, round the clock... There's a certain gel between the instruments he gets in the mastering process that it gives it a warm dynamic powerful sound I think—that's what Tyler has brought to it so I have always used that as the benchmark sound for the label... A lot of musicians don't understand that side of things, that's a skill in itself to learn how to listen for frequencies and the mastering process, what makes a good master—how to get the panning... Tyler is really good at panning."

This also applies when Whirlwind is pitched a completed project—Janisch gets involved to suggest where he feels the sound needs remixing and/or remastering:

"I've done that quite a few times, even when musicians tell me 'I've been working on this for a year, I'm really happy with it'! Sure that's fine but... let's just do it anyway and if we come out with a worse result, I'll eat the entire bill myself. I never have—everyone has said 'I'm so glad I did that.'"

While there are guiding principles of sound quality, different projects and pieces will need a variation of approach, particularly important when Whirlwind, admirably, does not fit easily into a genre box. They self-describe their output on their Facebook page as "an eclectic catalogue of adventurous and visceral music that spans genres, is rooted in originality and has key emphasis on the improvised." Janisch elaborates:

"I'm trying to appeal to people who might not know about this music. That's why I describe the music the way I do, because if someone sees 'rock' and they're a 'bebop' head the chances are that they are going to leave the site. By not using genre labels, I'm trying to keep the door open for anybody who comes across the site and hopefully tell them, once they've surfed around and listened, they can see that in terms of energy, style and influences it's not much different than the music that they are used to listening to."

But while being a 'bebop' or 'Kora' act would not preclude you from releasing on Whirlwind, if you do want the attention of the label's boss the key is to have the musical fundamentals in place for your particular genre:

"For me to get excited about it, everyone in the band needs to have their playing together. They might not be the best musician in the world but they need to be well rounded in their playing and that means that you hear immediately that they have a big awareness of their instrument, their instrument's history and whatever subset of jazz, they are into. In other words they've got their shit together. It's got to be I can hear that they are working on all that stuff—attention to detail, big nice full sounds of their instruments. They have nice big consistent sounds no matter what instrument it is."

Janisch also values empathy between the musicians, referring to the example of the wonderful Tori Freestone album In the Chop House he said:

"You can hear when a band has been playing together and they know how to sound good together and they like playing with each other, that comes across in the sound. You might get a random tenor player playing her same exact tunes with two others they've never played with and you wouldn't get that same sort of sonic cohesiveness. It comes with playing together in a band, that's where you get that great gelled kind of sound. It's also something we try and accentuate in the mixing and mastering process—that was another Tyler job."

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given Whirlwind's success in its five years of operation, its owner is upbeat on the state of the music industry today having been encouraged both by the age range present at recent gigs and their preparedness to support the music by investing in a CD:

"There's times when you think that this kind of music takes a more sophisticated listener... as people get older they search for new things so by the time they reach such and such an age they finally investigate this kind of stuff because they are sick of the bland pop. But then we just did a show on my tour at Birmingham Conservatoire and it was packed full of the students—almost half of the students there bought a CD and I remember thinking that I can't remember the last time that this many young kids, in the UK anyway, have bought that many CDs. I was even asking some of them 'do you guys even have a hi-fi player?.' It's not as bad as everyone says—when you are out on the road and you see the kind of people buying your CDs it's all ages... if you support us we can make more music, that's the message we're trying to get across."

What is more unusual, at a time when artists as diverse as Thom Yorke of Radiohead and Taylor Swift have removed their music from streaming services, is that Janisch and his artists are discussing taking the pragmatic approach of putting older Whirlwind releases onto the likes of Spotify et al as a calling card for future releases:

"There's a sea of musicians nowadays and everyone's great, and it's a hard, hard game. So you should try your hardest to get your stuff out there. So that's why I am trying to convince the artists now, so and so's debut release once it's been out there for a year it's just an obscure jazz name, it had a good press campaign but it's over, the world's moved on. If people come across it on the Whirlwind site then that's great, but let's face it, it's kind of died. So I was telling this artist, why don't you just put it on streaming and... he's getting a couple of thousand streams every couple of months and that's cool... all those people have checked your music out, so they're aware of you and that has value."

The icing on the Whirlwind cake this year, however, has been its owner's wonderful Paradigm Shift album, surely destined to be placed high in many year-end listings. It's an album that amply demonstrates Janisch's musicianship being built upon the rhythmic power of his bass and Colin Stranahan's drums, augmented with the inventive melodic stabs and patterns of the ensemble's horns and piano. This combination of melody and rhythm is extremely effective in allowing free-er sections to co-exist alongside the composed parts, which draws the listener in and extends the listening life of the album.

The title, though, is ambiguous—a 'paradigm shift' is usually defined as an establishment of new, better, norms and in this context could be interpreted as being on a purely personal level, a personal musical development or even, much to Janisch's horror when a punter suggested it a recent gig, a great leap forward in the state of all music!

"That thought had never even crossed my mind—that people would actually even take it for that. The imagery on the front cover... it's all about how the last four or five years of my life there's been so many different changes that my own bubble has completely burst. It's a personal statement of what I've had to happen to me. In my thinking and experience of many things in my life not just my two daughters being born or my elder brother passing away. I've grown up quite a bit personally and I've taken interest in quite a few social causes. So for me that was a new way of operating, this break out of my own paradigm. It had nothing to do with my thought on whether it was good or not -that would be the most pretentious title of all time if that was the case."

The album is dedicated to the memory of Janisch's brother Joseph who inspired the beautiful, fitting, tribute of "The JJ I Knew." It is a 2-CD set split between disc 1's "The Paradigm Shift Suite" and the second disc titled "Mike's Mosey" the music from both discs being drawn from a May 2011 live performance at the Pizza Express Jazz Club in London. That is only part of the story however, because a huge amount of post-production work was done over 17 months in numerous sessions with Alex Bonney.

"Right around the time that that was recorded that I started working with Alex as a mixing engineer for the label and then we had a real growth process together... A lot of the stuff that happens in the CD it was stuff that I had heard and then I talked to him about—like 'on this part can we do this? I hear this...' ...and then we'd sit for 15 different sessions in the studio—it was a lot of time... I wanted it to be a representation of my new band moving forward and it didn't quite have that on the live recording so that's why I did it. I just had to do something new to it because it felt old for me."

The effect of Bonney's contributions is always interesting and sometimes plain startling, adding new layers and a cinematic feel that lift the music into something different altogether. Occasionally you can hear the crowd from the original recording, sometimes treated to appear ghostly, a magnetic trace of their original presence. The track "Mike's Mosey" is a good example of the feel:

"That "Mike's Mosey" track is a composed piece where I'm actually improvising freely throughout the entire piece through all this what seems like randomness from the rest of the band. It was a musical re-enactment of a crazy night out I had in London. I just thought that would be a cool idea, let's see if I can re-create this sonically. That's why there's a lot of different soundscapes and effects going on in that one... it gave a filmic quality to the music which is what people were telling us a lot on the road, when he [Alex Bonney] would bring these amazing soundscapes in and around everything, filter people's sound at the same time—it was really effective. He gave the band this whole other dimension that was very new for me."

This theme of pushing himself to go further and make his music the best that it could be was important in the compositional process for the main 33 minute "Paradigm Shift Suite." The suite was composed during an extraordinary three day improvised session from which Janisch cherry picked, linked and joined sections:

"It was a very honest way to compose —once you're improvising for a long time, you play everything that's comfortable and that's readily available, and then once you break over two hours just purely improvising everything changes. In fact you mostly play less because you're really at that point now where you've exhausted your ideas, and you're really playing new content for yourself. So all the ideas that went forward after that point I recorded and I just wanted to try and do it, see if I could pull it off. I only did three days, long days. I got to a pretty deep level of consciousness when I was improvising. I really felt in the zone —my fingers grew really sore too."

The 'paradigm shift' in terms of Janisch's growing interest in social causes is also hinted at in the titles to pieces in the suite like "Bailout" on the banking crisis or "Celestial Dictator" that refers to the work of Christopher Hitchens. It's intended as a subtle way of getting the open minded listener to think, rather than advancing an ideology or detailed point of view.

"They [the banks] got special treatment when in true capitalism, they were a business, they should have failed. That really made me angry and I think that some of that energy made it onto the album—definitely that track 'Bail Out' I wanted to make a nice punchy number that demonstrated my feelings towards all that when it went down. I'm massively into Christopher Hitchens and he had a famous speech about the 'celestial dictator...' no matter what you think of that guy, he was so well read, such an articulate speaker—one of the best public speakers I've ever heard by far. The biggest gift that we all have is to think for ourselves, critically think. It's a reminder to myself as much as anyone else—I have thought 'should I write a manifesto?,' like you see on some albums and I thought no, I'll just leave certain key phrases out there and people can think about it if they want."

The suite is also notable for its unusual instrumentation—the opening track "Fluid" makes an arresting beginning through the near psychedelic use of Paul Booth's electronically treated digeridoo. It also gives us a hint of the band's sense of humour—the "Fluid" of the title being an in-joke reference to the cider fueled evening that led to its creation! The final track on the second disc "Awakening" also features the digeridoo and has an appreciable lifting of the mood, giving some measure of release, closure perhaps, to the tension that some of the tracks have. That is not to say that the album is a difficult or depressing listen, there is far too much melody there for that, but it does go through a range of musical moods, conjuring up different and varied emotions along the way that go beyond a binary happy/sad. Janisch's comments on "Fluid" were particularly interesting:

"I had my electric bass, we were doing some overdubs, he [Paul Booth] had his digeridoo so we put a space echo on the digeridoo and I had my really cool delay pedal—it gives it that creamy reverb-y sound. That was all just a free jam. I was just playing whatever I heard over the top of the digeridoo and then we layered it. One in the right channel, left and centre and we kind of introduced some sorts like this psychedelic twist... intro into my sonic world that's the idea... with friends you've played together forever and you're just having fun that's usually when the music is the best."

Reactions to the album have been positive, if in some cases reviewers found it hard to place the music in a convenient pigeon-hole. This should be something to celebrate—far too many musicians across all the genres are prepared to coast in a comfortable formula, that we as the jazz community should applaud those who look to push themselves to be as good as they can in their compositions and playing.

"I knew it was going to turn people's heads who had known my output to that point, but it's been empowering. There's plenty of music out there that doesn't challenge anyone. It was very honest, the most honest I've ever been with my own music."

Photo Credit: Monika S Jakubowska

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