Various Artists/Documentary Jazzin' the Black Forest Monitorpop Entertainment
If ever there were a record label in need of reissue on CD, it's the German MPS label. Formed in the mid-1960s by the late Hans Georg Brunner-Schwer, it's hard to say what was more remarkable: that a studio based in the small town of Villingen, in the German Black Forest, could create a body of work 700 records strong; that it could promote European artists including Jean-Luc Ponty, Albert Mangelsdorff and Joachim Kuhn as well as attract North American musicians including Oscar Peterson, Art Farmer and George Duke; or that it could create a signature sound so distinctive that it rivaled another German label, ECM, for sheer purity of aesthetic.
The label was bought out by Polygram in 1983, and while there has been CD release of a handful of MPS titles, the percentage is far too small for a label that created such a significant discography that covered the entire spectrum of jazz. From free jazz to mainstream, fusion to Latin, proto-smooth to vocal jazz, MPS may have stood for Musik Produktion Schwarzwald but, based on director Elke Baur's new documentary film about the label Jazzin' the Black Forest, it could equally have been an acronym for Most Perfect Sound.
With Brunner-Schwer's death in 2004, Baur's film is a timely look at a label that managed, like ECM, to create a distinctive brand that was more about an approach to sound and an elusive artistic aesthetic than that of any one genre. That said, ECM's Manfred Eicher has always been a hands-on producer. While Brunner-Schwer may have been no less intimately involved in the overall production, his involvement in the music was less overt more about creating an atmosphere conducive to letting the artists go where they may than having explicit musical input.
The film is told, for the most part, through interviews with artists and people associated with the label, as well as archival footage from studio and live sessions. There are also external shots of Villingen that provide a sense of the village's peaceful ambience, and how its distance from the urban locales of most major labels at the time engendered an inherently creative atmosphere.
There are interviews with many of the label's artists, including Wolfgang Dauner, Eberhard Weber, Jean-Luc Ponty, Albert Mangelsdorff, George Duke, Monty Alexander, Volker Kriegel and others. One of Brunner-Schwer's fundamental concepts for MPS was recording the piano in a way that made the listener feel as though they were hearing the instrument from the perspective of the pianist, not as a member of the audience. The crystal clarity of the film's sound clearly documents that philosophy.
In the film's ninety minutes there are many memorable passages, but one of the most enlightening is archival footage of Oscar Peterson and his trio arriving at Brunner-Schwer's house after a concert performance. What started as a brief bit of fun turned into a lengthy house concert, and while it's not all captured on film, one can sense Peterson's comfort in the environment and appreciate just how much that sense of comfort contributed to the creative process. There's also some exciting, albeit brief, concert footage of Mangelsdorff with Jaco Pastorius and Alphonse Mouzon that would ultimately result in the album Trilogue - Live! (MPS, 1976).
L:R Albert Mangelsdorff, Alphonse Mouzon, Jaco Pastorius
Interviews with German DJs who have collected the entire MPS catalog on vinyl and are introducing the music to a new generation of listeners in clubs around the country raise hope that the label will not simply disappear into the past. The release of MPS Jazz Reworks (MPS/Universal Germany, 2004) will hopefully bring additional recognition to the handful of MPS artists represented and create a greater demand for reissue of the label's back catalog.
And with only thirty titles reissues on CD to date, there's an immense selection of remarkable recordings just waiting to see the light of day by many of the artists who participated in the documentary, but also others including the late Polish violinist Zbigniew Seifert, whose Man of the Light (MPS, 1976) is an overlooked classic.
Jazzin' the Black Forest is an enlightening look at a label that, sadly, has been largely overlooked in recent years. Hopefully it will encourage Universal Germany to step up its reissue program and make available so many of the beautifully recorded and packaged albums that were a significant part of any open-minded jazz fan's collection in the 1960s and 1970s.
Feature: Directed by Elke Baur. Approximate running time 90 minutes. Mix of English language and subtitles. Dual-sided DVD with one side NTSC, the other PAL.