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."
About Michael Janisch
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