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Origin Records: Creating Opportunities and Community

Jakob Baekgaard By

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AAJ: Could you talk about some of the key artists and albums that have been important in terms of shaping the development of the label?

MJ: This question has caused me to go back and scroll through lots and lots of album covers on the website. In the early years we were just trying to figure out the process of manufacturing and releasing records.

JB: With close to 600 releases now, there are a LOT of projects and moments that stand out as being pivotal to me. Off the top of my head though, getting a sort of affirmation that we're on the right track from older, established players always felt like a marker that things were progressing properly. Don Lanphere did his first record with Fats Navarro in 1948 and then came onboard with us almost 50 years later, recording the final five recordings of his life. His belief in me and what we were doing was huge in those early years and it gave us a lot of confidence that we were offering something beneficial to the scene.

MJ: Don Lanphere was an important part of the Northwest scene, but also someone with an established name throughout the industry so I remember that felt like Origin was a "real" label now. That happened again with Hadley Caliman who was in Seattle for the last part of his career but was important to a lot of people.

JB: Doing multiple records with Jessica Williams, Hal Galper, Hadley Caliman, Benny Powell and others, has been very inspiring and gratifying and is one of those things that can keep you going when many other aspects of the business don't make much sense. Doing multiple projects with really active, pivotal players like Bobby Broom, Joe Locke, George Colligan, Sam Yahel, and some others, opens up many doors, many that we can't assess in the moment, but realization of their impact usually unfolds over several years.

MJ: I remember Sam Yahel's Truth and Beauty was a big deal as it included Joshua Redman and Brian Blade. And that record is a good example of the Origin concept where that record came about from my relationship with Sam which goes back to my college days.

Chicago saxophonist Brad Wheeler put out a recording called The Future Was Yesterday and that established us almost immediately in the Chicago scene. Bobby Broom did a record shortly thereafter and it followed with a bunch of artists after that.

JB: Being around for 20 years too, there are players who came onboard straight out of college and now have a track record and are busy creating opportunities for other musicians. Matt Jorgensen, Chad McCullough, Christopher Icasiano, Jeff Baker, are all artists who've put together some great records while creating labels, concert series, tours, festivals, and generally supporting all artists they come in contact with. To me, having some role in inspiring those kinds of activities is what ultimately defines success as a label. Anybody can make a record, but creating a scene? That's an accomplishment!

AAJ: You are located in Seattle. Is it important to you to have an identity as a Seattle label and how would you characterize Seattle's jazz scene and sound?

MJ: The Seattle music scene has always been eclectic, and I think that is well represented in the early years of Origin and OA2. Looking back on the early recordings by John and I, Thomas Marriott, Rick Mandyck, Mark Taylor, New Stories, Jeff Johnson and Hans Teuber, that was the music you would hear at the clubs nightly in Seattle. As the label grew it expanded to include artists from around the world and naturally the sound has changed, but the source of all of this were the artists that John and I were friends with and performed with.

JB: I'm afraid I don't have much choice for the Seattle branding. Diving head first into the scene when I was 22, the players and sounds of Seattle are my life-blood so it's impossible to escape. Still vivid is the 1981 concert I heard my first night in town with Art Lande, Gary Peacock, Jerry Granelli, Jim Knapp, Denney Goodhew, and Dave Peterson. They all taught at Cornish College of the Arts and were pivotal in inspiring the next generations of Seattle musicians and others who moved on to define many movements in jazz over the last 30 years. At the same time, Floyd Standifer, Ernestine Anderson, Bill Ramsey, Hadley Caliman, Buddy Catlett, Julian Priester and others who played with Quincy Jones, Basie, Herbie, Louis, were playing around every night, adding a "blue-collar" component—both in musicians being ready to do yeoman's work on any gig that came up, and a solid, hard-swinging foundation underlying our sound. The high level of musicianship, mentorship, variety, and general hanging that was the norm around here is the keystone to what the jazz life is to me.

AAJ: Which jazz venues would you recommend in Seattle? Are there any particular places where artists from your label often play?

JB: Tula's has been a mainstay for local players for 25 years. It's gone through ups and downs, but it was always the hang for most players I've worked with. The Triple Door is a converted Vaudeville theater that presents a wide array of artists on a semi-regular basis. The Royal Room is pianist/composer Wayne Horvitz' space that presents many an interesting band. Egan's Ballard Jam House acts as a small community club for students and singers often, but also has regular high-caliber people coming through. The big room, Jazz Alley, was presenting Dexter, Getz, Blakey, in an intimate space when I was coming up, but has morphed into a showroom for more high-end, mainstream acts over the last 15 years. Still the place to hear Tower of Power, McCoy, Scofield, Frisell, etc... Many creative players have moved out of the main rooms and are doing series, concerts, and festivals in all sorts of environments around town. Definitely, if anyone were to come through Seattle and wanted to get a sense of the scene, they'd have to research and keep their ears to the street if they want to get a true sampling. Well worth the efforts though!

AAJ: What is your take on the use of digital technology? Do you see it as an opportunity or a hindrance? Could you imagine Origin being a label that only released downloads or is it important to you that there is a physical product?

MJ: Digital is here and there is no way to avoid it. It has been an opportunity for us to be able to expand to parts of the world that we wouldn't have been able to otherwise. For example, shipping a CD to parts of Europe can take three to four weeks and digital delivery offers the customer the ability to listen to it almost immediately.

But I do think that our "digital" culture takes for granted all that goes into making a recording and, especially in jazz, part of the experience of a recording is lost by not having album artwork, liner notes, credits, etc. So I don't think you'll ever see Origin going to digital only, John would never allow it! Part of the thing with Origin and OA2 is "the look" of the label and that requires a cover and packaging.

JB: Digital technology has been a great boon for getting music out in an affordable way. Of course, there's the other side of it too! Considering what a moment in time the advent of the CD was -an affordable medium that's fairly indestructible, sounds great, is a commodity that can pay for itself and it contains the vital info we want to pass on with a recording -it's pretty shocking how many people are so inspired to quickly destroy it and move on to an inferior product. I'm afraid there is nothing for a working musician or label in the streaming/digital music racket as it's being sold to us now.

Besides the obvious money/business issues, the cultural aspect is a major problem for me. From the beginning of time, one had to be present to hear music, and for the last 100 years, you could have the next best thing with a radio DJ or an LP or a CD to let you know the who/what/why of a recording and present a (hopefully) compelling visceral experience along with it. If the realities changed so that digital releases were the only option, not to be overly dramatic, but it'd be a landscape we wouldn't recognize as all indie labels would have no choice but to fold. The greater issue would be the quick eroding of our collective cultural knowledge base.

AAJ: These days, the opinions about streaming services seem to differ a lot. What is your take on this issue?

JB: Streaming music is certainly pleasant to have around as we all enjoy the concepts of "easy-access" and "FREE." That anyone thinks it can be the center of a sustainable business model for music makers though, baffles me. We've had libraries with free books for centuries and still could wrap our heads around book ownership, personal collections, thriving book stores, etc... so I'm not sure why we talk all-or-nothing when it comes to music consumption. When I think of streaming services, I see ridiculously bloated, unnecessarily powerful, sociopathic corporate structures with interests that have nothing to do with musicians, so my opinion of them is 'tainted,' to be polite. Just like MySpace, Zune, et al, we will play their game and get the most out of them while they last, but only a fool could assume it's a relationship that will work out for anyone but them.

MJ: As an artist and as someone who works on the record label side, I don't have a problem with the idea of streaming services as a concept, I just have a problem with what they pay and how the music business part of streaming has been set up. The balance of power seems to be with the distributors of the music rather than the creators of the music. Everything is paid in percentages so there is no incentive for Spotify, Amazon or Apple Music, etc, other than to keep their internal expenses low.

And unlike streaming movies or television, I disagree with the concept that when there is a new album released it is immediately available on all of the streaming services. I have a Netflix account so if I apply the music business model to film I should be able to watch the new Star Wars movie at home the day it is released. I would like to see the music industry adopt the idea that if you are going to pay ten dollars a month for access to all of recorded history you have to wait a few months to hear the latest releases. But I also realize that this probably won't happen, and the current industry model is here to stay.

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