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I’ve always thought of jazz in terms of Major League Baseball. You have your major labels, Verve, Blue Note, Warner Bros., and Sony, that record the huge stars, usually late in their careers. Hard core fans scout the minor league, small independent labels that develop the talent of a jazz artist, the Black Saints, Riversides, and Criss Crosses of this world. Today we all dig Joe Lovano’s Blue Note recordings, voting him as a top saxophonist every year, but check out the music from his lesser-known Soul Note releases of the 1980’s. This farm system serves jazz well, if you bought 10 discs a year they could be from the majors. A hundred disc buyer was well served to scout the minors. The baseball analogy seems to fail in light of today’s mega-mergers, DAT recording technology and the internet. The majors are still the majors, even if they soon are to number only 2 or 3 companies. But I think the minors are getting squeezed by do-it-yourself musicians who can record high quality sessions and market it themselves. These truly independent labels, like Tim Berne’s Screwgun records, bear few of the overhead costs the majors, or for that matter the minors endure. Few copies have to be sold to turn a profit. This may prove to be the beginning of the end for minor labels, and a concern for jazz fans who could count on Gerry Teekens of Criss Cross to develop the next jazz “stars.” Fans are going to have to choose wisely, and I think sampling discs via the internet will allow them to separate the good from the bad.
Let me help the DIY cause by endorsing the self-produced recording by composer and drummer Brooke Sofferman. The New England Conservatory trained musician can be heard on recordings by Steve Kirby, Ed Harlow, and another excellent self-produced disc The Book Of Norm by Berklee College of Music teachers Abby Aronson & Norm Zocher. They play a large part on this recording as does perennial minor league all-star saxophonist Jerry Bergonzi, a faculty member of NEC. Sofferman’s compositions and arrangements display maturity beyond his baby-faced album cover, which remind me of Matt Wilson, another Boston trained drumming up-and-comer. His varied approach to composition showcases more time changes than CNN did on New Years eve. From flat out burners a la Joe Lovano/John Scofield to “Dry Season,” which could easily be the title track for the next James Bond movie with Abby courting us with sultry bossa nova lyrics, Sofferman displays a light touch on the skins and symbols bringing drummer Bill Stewart to mind. “Almost There” begins as a hard bop burner worthy of Sonny Rollins, then time slows, and Bergonzi and Sofferman play hide-n-seek with rhythm and tone. There are plenty of gems on this self-produced coming out party. Sofferman might just skip the minor leagues and go straight to “the show.”