Nick Hempton's Catch & Release

Eric J. Iannelli By

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My least favorite part of music is trying to sell it and talking about myself. —Nick Hempton
Ever since the advent of Napster, musicians and commentators have been sounding the knell for the music industry model that had existed for the better part of the twentieth century. More than fifteen years on, it's clear that the old model lurches on, haggard and zombielike, but no clear and lasting successor has emerged. The à la carte model of iTunes, the 500-pound gorilla of the digital music era, is now losing ground to ad-supported or subscription streaming services such as Pandora and Spotify, and the many musicians who by misfortune or by ignorance have failed to benefit from these outmoded or evolving platforms are searching for new ways to be heard.

It's a time of transition, then, but it's also one of experimentation. After releasing In Rainbows with Radiohead as a pay-what-you-like, DRM-free website download back in 2007, frontman Thom Yorke more recently partnered with file-sharing platform BitTorrent to release his second solo LP, Tomorrow's Modern Boxes, for an affordable $6. With her 2013 self-titled full-length, Beyoncé pioneered the "visual album," a complementary sight-and-sound experience, with iTunes as its vehicle. Using that portal's same expansive reach, the following year U2 dropped their new Songs of Innocence into personal music libraries around the world whether listeners wanted it or not. Also in 2014, prior to releasing Indie Cindy, their first album in nearly a quarter of a century, the Pixies stoked hype and maximized revenue by issuing the album's twelve tracks over three chronologically staggered multi-format EPs. They Might Be Giants resurrected Dial-a-Song and overhauled their fan club to offer tiered membership perks reminiscent of Kickstarter campaigns. And in the world of jazz, trumpeter Jeremy Pelt has been offering live, freely downloadable MP3s from his website for roughly a decade as a bonus to existing fans ("adding value" in the cold vocabulary of marketingspeak) and a means of introducing new listeners to his work. When tallying all the niche and indie acts along with the household names, the number of musicians who are performing variations on these themes to promote or distribute their work is considerable, and it's growing out of necessity.

Saxophonist Nick Hempton is among those spurred by the mother of invention. With three well-received albums—Nick Hempton Band (Triple-Distilled, 2009), The Business (Positone, 2011) and Odd Man Out (Positone, 2013)—under his belt as leader, the Australian expat opted for something more adventurous and, with any luck, more financially viable with his fourth. Titled Catch and Release , it's not so much a record as a project that aims to adapt the traditional jazz album to à la carte purchasing behavior and the staggered release format.

"It's simply making music and putting it into the marketplace the way people are already buying it," says Hempton. "In other forms of music, there are other revenue streams that aren't available in jazz. You can play huge arenas, sell merchandise. There's a lot more money to be had.

"Even at its best point, jazz never had a huge share of overall music sales. It's a very small market, and a big-band album, for example, is virtually unheard of today because it costs so much money to make. I want to get to the point where we're not cutting corners to make it happen."

Catch and Release officially kicked off last July with the title track, a sultry seven-minute, 24-bar swinger. It was recorded with drummer Dan Aran (who has performed on all of Hempton's albums as leader), pianist Jeremy Manasia and bassist Dave Baron. That was followed in September by the relaxed toe-tapping groove of "Hanging for Dear Life." Here Hempton leads once again on alto sax, and pianist Tadataka Unno steps in for Manasia.

Six weeks after "Hanging for Dear Life" appeared, Hempton issued "The Third Degree," which he describes as "Blue Note bossa" on account of its textural Art Blakey-like rolls and rim clicks that power a straight-ahead swing. Unlike the first two, it's a quintet performance. Hempton takes up the tenor sax for this one; guest musician Peter Bernstein features on guitar.

"I like the idea of keeping the regular band and then bringing in extra people," he says. "I'm thinking about doing this in future, and it's something you find on all the albums I've done. Having a track at a time allows a different way of looking at it, and on this one I wrote with Peter in mind. It allows me to write for a particular person and therefore a particular style of playing."

In early December, after a brief and unexpected delay, came "Montauk Mosey," the fourth and most recent track as of this writing. Hempton calls the duo ballad "a leisurely stroll with no urgent destination," and it features just him (back on alto) and Italian pianist Rossano Sportiello. Like all the tracks so far, it was recorded at Smalls Jazz Club in New York City's Greenwich Village, where Hempton has been performing for several years.

"Somebody once asked Charlie Parker which of his albums he should buy, and Bird said, 'Keep your money!' because the constraints of the studio always have a negative effect on the performance," says Hempton. "For people who've never recorded in a studio, you can't imagine how unpleasant that is. You can see the rest of your band, but you're all in these claustrophobic little booths and you can't hear anything. It's unnatural, and it's difficult to get real interplay.

"Here we're all next to each other, all looking at each other, in a familiar club setting, which makes for a much more natural way of creating music. So this experiment is a new thing but [it's] an old-fashioned way of recording."

At the end of the year-long experiment, the Catch and Release songs will likely be collected and sold as a conventional ten-track album—a digital download, to be sure, perhaps even a physical disc as well. The explanatory one-sheets Hempton has been distributing to the media alongside the individual tracks might also become liner notes. Like jazz itself, it's an exercise in improvisation. He has a broad framework in mind, but he's adapting on the fly in response to real-world conditions: the availability of certain musicians, for example, or the idiosyncrasies of listeners' buying habits. And he's finding, to his delight as well as his disappointment, that the practical and commercial parameters of the project are shaping and informing its artistic aspects.

"Jazz is very album-oriented and for good reason. The albums we've done in the past are like self-contained concerts. You pace it the way you'd pace a set," Hempton says. For the piecemeal approach of Catch and Release, however, he's had to develop thematic consistency retroactively.
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