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Ozella Music: Nordic Beauty and Beyond

Ozella Music: Nordic Beauty and Beyond
Jakob Baekgaard By

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It is always tempting to explain one story in the light of another, and in the case of guitarist and composer Dagobert Böhm's Ozella Music label, it is inevitable to be reminded of Windham Hill, the record company started by the guitarist William Ackerman in 1976. Like Windham Hill, Ozella started out as one-man project run by a guitarist and evolved into something more, and both have a focus on acoustic and lyrical music and the kind of atmospheric and meditative sounds that are often termed new age or lounge. But this is also where the comparison stops. While Windham Hill was eclectic and had a jazz division in its prime, it was never really a jazz label. The focus of Ozella is primarily on jazz and with its two subsidiaries, Ozella Lounge and Songways (concentrating on singer/songwriters), the priorities are clear.

While Ozella is first and foremost a jazz label, jazz in Dagobert Böhm's ears also means that there can be influences from all corners of the world, but especially the Nordic sound, and musicians like pianist Helge Lien and saxophonist Karl Seglem have found homes at the label.

Talking about his reasons for starting the label, Böhm is quite humorous: "I started Ozella Music and the publishing company Edition Ozella in 1999. For a few years, I used it only for my own releases. One reason to do my own company was probably to avoid having as bad a CD cover as I had for the album Acoustic Unit on In-Akustik in 1998."

However, there are other reasons than bad cover art as to why Böhm went on to start Ozella. "I think it is good to know the business from both sides. And as a musician I was always interested in the business side too."

There is a story behind the name Ozella. "The band on Acoustic Unit is a nice band that I had for several years with saxophonist Tony Lakatos, the fantastic percussionist Kornel Horvat and bassist Bela Lattmann. We played a song called 'Ozella' and in those days I sometimes told the audience the story behind the name. In short: it is a fantasy word that my daughter created when she was a little child. At that time, she had just begun to learn how to speak."

The name Ozella is special and it makes good sense that a special label should have a special name. In fact, the reputation of the label is so good that Böhm doesn't have to do any work to find his artists: "The artists find me. I never contact artists directly for the label. The exception is the four CD series Morning, Noon, Evening and Night, which was the first release with other artists. I collected many instrumental tunes and compiled them on the quite successful Rhythm of the Day Series."

Ozella is known for its roster of fine Nordic artists, but as it turns out, the focus on the Nordic sound was a coincidence. "The Nordic sound became one of the most important influences for Ozella by accident. At the end of the music fair WOMEX 2004 in Sevilla, packed with many bags full of CDs, I ran into Norwegian saxophonist Karl Seglem, who wanted to give me one more promo CD. This CD was packed in very big paper artwork and I had to fold it, kind of destroy it, to squeeze it into one of my bags. Out of the many albums I brought home, this was the music that interested me the most and I agreed with Karl to compile an album with my personal Karl Seglem favorites from his many albums and a few unreleased tracks. The result was New North. It was quite successful, and still sells, and was a very nice start for a cooperation with Karl that now has lasted for many years. And this was also the beginning of the Nordic sound on Ozella. I suddenly got many calls, emails, demos and productions from Norway."

While the Nordic sound is prominent on Ozella, the label has a wide range of genres and artists, as Böhm explains: "There are many styles and different releases. Some artists you may not know, but nearly every album was or still is important and was a success or is still doing well. Not every album is really selling much, but some of the instrumental albums are doing very well in terms of syndication, as the music gets used in TV documentaries and in films."

In the end, the criterion for Böhm is quality, and he has a firm belief in the music he releases and knows what he likes: "I like music that creates pictures in your head and this type of music very often has the chance to do well as film music. So not only the top sellers are important, and I am very happy when I can do something for music that I love, even though it appears to have no commercial chances, at least from the first glance. But we also have some albums that sell in a five-digit quantity."

Ozella has become both an artistic and commercial success. Here is a selection of highlights from the eclectic catalog.

Dagobert Böhm

Circle Around

2000

Label founder and guitarist Dagobert Böhm also records on Ozella Music and Circle Around has the honor of being the first item in the catalog. It is a delicately structured album of acoustic compositions where the spotlight is on the warm sounds of wood and steel. Böhm's guitar is front and center, but Manfred Zepf adds to the texture with his fretless bass and Harish Powar plays classical guitar.

The feeling of the record bears close affinity to the Windham Hill recordings of guitarist Alex de Grassi, especially his trilogy of early classics: Turning: Turning Back (Windham Hill, 1978), Slow Circle (Windham Hill, 1979) and Clockwork (Windham Hill, 1981). Like de Grassi, Böhm is not only technically adept, but also a natural storyteller with his instrument. A title like "Dreaming Strings" is a fine description of the music, which is often tranquil and dreamy. Böhm paints lush landscapes of melody with his instrument, but a composition like "Fast Spacer" shows another side of him that is just as much interested in rhythm.

Albums like Acoustic Unit (in-akustik, 1998) and String Unit (Ozella, 2000) sees Böhm broadening his palette, taking in larger ensembles and a wider palette of sounds that go beyond the lyrical new age of early Alex de Grassi, and instead he enters a territory of acoustic world music. With its emphasis on beauty, melody and rhythmic curiosity, Circle Around nevertheless bears the hallmark of an Ozella release.

Axel Schultheiss

On Wings

2009

Dagobert Böhm's background as a guitarist has given him a unique ability to recognize talent in fellow instrumentalists like Stephan Bormann and Michel Sajrawy. Axel Schultheiss is an example of a guitarist who, like Böhm himself, is not only technically capable and eager to expand the boundaries of his instrument, but also has an intuitive sense of melody and knows how to connect head and heart.

The cover of On Wings shows a flock of birds flying into a red sky and the sublime scenery of nature is connected to the sound of the guitar that soars and sings without words in the hands of Schultheiss, who clearly knows the important school of fingerstyle guitarists ranging from John Fahey and Robbie Basho to Pierre Bensusan and Michael Hedges. For instance, the title track, with its multi-layered acoustic ambience, owes much to the latter, but Schultheiss also has an admirable sense of space and limitation, which is shown on the haiku-like miniatures "Koan 1," "Koan 2" and "Koan 3" that all come across like little Eastern melodic meditations, capable of capturing the moment in a structure as fragile as a quick brush of paint on paper.

Many of the songs refer to nature, like "Sun after Rain," "Landscape" and "The Plain Sea." Titles like these are not empty labels, but true pointers of an organic music that captures the melancholy and wonder of the changing seasons and birds drifting toward the sea.

Josete Ordonez

Por El Mar

2009

Nature and the melodies of an acoustic guitar also play a major role on Josete Ordonez' album, providing a relaxed landscape of soothing sounds. Ozella has a superb series of lounge music titled Morning, Noon, Evening and Night and Ordonez is the perfect contender for the kind of organic and ethereal lounge presented in the series. The title track is a tribute to the ocean and is a gentle acoustic melody wrapped in women's voices and hushed drum beats that fall like waves against the beach. On "Date a Volar" a flute blows like a breeze in the air and "Cinco" uses choir, piano and acoustic strums to create a music that is warm and friendly.

Ordonez is an accomplished guitarist with jazzy flourishes, but first of all, he is a creator of moods. Every sound on the record adds to a mosaic that is meant to make the listener relax and enjoy life, but it isn't shallow hedonism, but rather a kind of ambience that allows the rhythm of life to slow down. In a way it is background music, but it is the kind of background that doesn't disappear into the air, but leaves a pleasant feeling in the room where it is played.

Streif

Nordic Winter

2006

It's a long way from the sun-kissed landscapes of Josete Ordonez to the Nordic Winter of the Norwegian group Streif, but Ozella Music embraces all seasons of nature and there's no doubt that the label has a preference for the beauty and melancholy of Nordic—especially Norwegian—music.

Streif is a quartet of multi-instrumentalists whose keen sense of folksong shines through on their album that is more joyful than the title might indicate. Many of the songs are dances and folksongs and some of them vibrate with rhythm. For instance, "Klarinettlått Etter" swirls around in a tightly knit dance between drums, clarinet and acoustic guitar.

Things are slowed down on the lullaby "Estlandsk Vuggevise" and the epic "Ballade." The former has a mild accordion taking the lead while the latter lets the horns sing through the frost.

Many folksongs were used for specific purposes and on Nordic Winter there are two songs related to weddings. "Brudesang Fra Solør" is a poignant hymn with accordion and acoustic guitar while "Saktmodig Brudemarsj" is imbued with a tinge of sadness. Throughout, the mixture of instruments, including clarinet, marimba and euphonium, creates a delicate balance and Nordic Winter comes across as both an authentic piece of folklore and a through-composed work of art.

Karl Seglem

NORSKjazz.no

2009

Like his countrymen in Streif, saxophonist Karl Seglem is interested in Norwegian folklore and uses it in his own unique interpretation of his country's cultural heritage. He has even gone so far that he plays goat horn, but on NORSKjazz.no he sticks to the saxophone.

His backing on the record is the Eple trio, with pianist Andreas Ulvo, bassist Sigurd Hole and drummer Jonas Howden Sjøvaag. This trio is the perfect choice for Seglem, who likes to challenge himself and navigate in the space between tradition and experiment.

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