In a review of discs released by recently arrived Porter Records, I was struck by the diversity of sounds found within this quartet of releases. A reissue of reedman Byard Lancaster's free jazz classic, Live at Macalester College
alongside the modal psychedelia of trumpeter Ted Daniel's Tapestry
doesn't seem too hard to fathom, but put those up next to the rolling, free R&B of Natural Food and Ugandan folk from Birigwa and you've got a very interesting stew. Luke Mosling is the one-man operation behind Porter, on the scene essentially since late 2007. Mosling says, "I'm trying to absorb different kinds of things. It works really well with the label, because there are labels that I admire who issue a certain type of jazz, but for me that's not what I want to do. The label is an extension of my own record collection, where I listen to experimental music, hip-hop, reggae, international music, all this other stuff that goes beyond jazz. I want to incorporate that philosophy into the label, make it into something for the eclectic listenerI go from listening to Karen Dalton to Napalm Death."
Mosling became interested in jazz in the late 1980s as a teenager in rural Wisconsin, after hearing Sun Ra perform on David Sanborn's variety showa strange sight to a kid weaned on metal and punk. "I went out and bought My Brother The Wind Volume 2
[Saturn, 1970] and though I got into other things, Sun Ra was always in the back of my head. Then when I went away to college in Minneapolis, a friend played me Mingus' Black Saint and the Sinner Lady
[Impulse, 1963] and that was a revelation." The collegiate habit of record collecting ensued, through a professional life as a video game developer in Florida, and "it's funny because I switched from collecting records to putting out records, and that hunger is channeled to something else that gives something back to the artist and presents it to more people."
2008 marks the year of Porter Records, with a catalog already sixteen titles deep into September. Porter's story is not all that different than one might expect from a small, upstart label: "One day, a friend of mine called me up and said 'I found this great record called Natural Food the other day. You should start a label and reissue it.' That put the spark there, and he did a lot of the legwork and found Mait Edey, who ran the Seeds label and originally put out the LP. We didn't know what we were doing, so we hemmed and hawed for a year or so, got a lawyer to do up a contract and finally the ball got rolling a bit more. Our roster expanded through Mait, who played with [guitarist] Lance Gunderson and [drummer] Craig Herndon, and they knew and played with [Finnish pianist] Heikki Sarmanto. So one day, my friend got a call from Heikki who was looking for me and got the wrong number. It became this small-world kind of thing where this person knows that person, you know. The network fell into place."
Soon, Sarmanto and Byard Lancaster became the artists around which the label's reissue program is based upon. "With Heikki, I had no idea who he was when he called me. I actually met him before I released his music, because his mother-in-law lives about fifteen minutes away. But I didn't know his back history or the EMI records. This was ultimately a new thing for me, and I was blown away when I first heard Counterbalance
[EMI, 1971, with reedman Juhani Aaltonen, Gunderson, Herndon and bassist Pekka Sarmanto]. Heikki's work appealed to me because it's different." Indeed, Sarmanto's florid, turnaround-filled lines remind one of Paul Bley or early Jarrett, but coupled with Gunderson's bluesy fretwork and the alternating peals and pillows of Aaltonen's reed arsenal, it's very unique music.
As for Lancaster, "I was looking through my collection trying to think of possibilities for reissues and artists to work with, so I went to his website and sent him a fax. An hour later I got a call from him, and we began corresponding. Prior to solidifying everything I went to Philly and met with him, [vibraphonist] Khan Jamal and [alto saxophonist] Marshall Allen. That's how that came about, and we're working together very closely now." In addition to reissuing Live at Macalester College
(Dogtown, 1972) and Personal Testimony
(Concert Artists, 1979), Porter also plans on issuing the incredibly hard-to-find Sounds of Liberation
Dogtown LP, along with new tracks recorded by the same ensemble, and possibly video footage of the group performing at the Miss Black Philadelphia pageant in the early Seventies.
But reissuing rare titles by artists like Lancaster and Sarmanto is only part of the Porter Records equation. Indeed, the label is delving into issuing new material by underground hip-hop artists like Earpeace and Misled Children, along with sound collages and contemporary composition by artists like Andrew McGraw, Andrew Raffao Dewar and David Szczesny. Mosling relates, "I don't know a whole lot about hip-hop, which is kind of a good thing, and when I listen to it I have no knowledge of the potential baggage. I listen to the music compositionally and the way they express themselves vocally."
"We also have coming out the Misled Children collaborating with [tenor saxophonist] Odean Pope. One day I was talking to one of the guys from Misled Children and he didn't realize Odean was in Catalyst, and he was like 'Catalyst is my favorite bandcan you get us together?' It's interesting because the way they approach hip-hop is strictly instrumental and organic, without samples and with no lyrics. It fits well with Odean's very rhythmic style. We're also going to do a four-disc boxed set with the Jeweled Antler Collective, a group of about thirteen Finnish, Kiwi and American free-folk artists. There's the strange part of trying to come up with an identity for the label, because we're like a chameleon. I imagine some burly hip-hop dudes coming to the site and saying, 'what the hell is this?'"
Something which bridges the perceived gap between the varied new music, often by younger artists, that Porter is releasing, and the reissues of scarce titles from the Afro-American and European underground, is their collaboration series. Odean Pope meeting with Misled Children is a first step in this direction, and Lancaster may collaborate with that band as well. Earpeace is a meeting between sound artist Szczesny and rapper Non from Shadowhuntaz. There is also the possibility of collaboration between Dewar and guitarist/sound-artist Alan Sondheim seeing the light of day.
Moving so quickly has surprisingly left Porter with very few growing pains. "I've been trying to slow things down a bit, but it's hard once the momentum gets going. The one thing I'd do differently is manufacturingyou can always make more, but you can't make less. I made a lot of the Natural Food disc and, well, the people who like the music I'm into are always very enthusiastic, so it seems like something will sell more than it actually might. Though of course I'd rather sell more than less, I don't care if I sell a lot. What I care about is selling good musicthat's my end goal."