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Sam First Records: Live Jazz on Vinyl

Sam First Records: Live Jazz on Vinyl

Courtesy Nick Calapine


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There is so much great music happening in our club, night after night. We didn't want that all to get lost in the wind.
—David Robaire
Four short years ago I had the pleasure of attending and putting pen to paper (well, not literally anymore) about Sam First, Los Angeles' hottest new jazz, haunt, which had made a splash on the city's jazz scene. Subsequent visits further validated the hip vibe of modernism combined with vintage jazz. To say that the formula has worked is quite the understatement. The atmosphere and acoustics allow jazz to be presented and heard the way it was meant to be.

Fast forward to the present, and we now have Sam First Records. The purity of sound made it a natural transition. Still, a new jazz record company in 2023? That's a rarity. There must be a story here. So once again I sought out club manager, talent coordinator, bassist, and now record producer David Robaire (pictured above).

All About Jazz: When Sam First was opened, was a record company in the long term plans at that time or was it an idea that was born out of the sound being so pristine?

David Robaire: Having a label wasn't anything we talked about at the beginning. It took time for us to really figure out how we wanted things to go at the club and for us to develop momentum there. A couple of years after opening, owner Paul Solomon casually mentioned that he had always wanted to own a record label. Ironically, I had always envisioned my career moving more into he direction of producing records. So it seemed like this was the perfect opportunity for both of us to bring the dream to life. The final piece of the puzzle was when I reconnected with an old teacher of mine from The New School, Brian Camelio. Brian is the founder and CEO of ArtistShare and after moving to LA, he built a label services to help labels like us get off the ground using the unique ArtistShare fan-funding platform. That's when things started to take off.

AAJ: For me, it was 3 Nights in L.A. (Fuzzy Music, 2019) with Peter Erskine, Alan Pasqua, George Garzone, and Darek Oles that really popped and put Sam First on the map as far as an exceptional record. If not sooner, that record had to have nudged you into producing your own records.

DR: By the time those guys recorded 3 Nights In L.A., Paul and I had already begun brainstorming. But hearing the finished product along with a couple other records that were made at the club confirmed what we had suspected... that the acoustics of the club would be great for making records.

AAJ: In this digital era there are fewer and fewer record companies, much less startups. Bold and risky are words that come to mind in taking on this endeavor. Although in another light, natural and logical, seem to apply as well. How would you describe the notion to move forward with it?

DR: Paul is a brilliant businessman, so when he brings a project to life, he considers it from all angles. I've learned so much from working with him. He knew that just like building the club, it would take a certain amount of capital in order to get a business off the ground that could, at the very least, sustain itself. So he asked me to build a reasonable, but realistic budget to outfit the club with state-of-the art recording gear without overdoing it. That project kept me busy during the lockdown. 

AAJ: What was that process like? What were the first considerations in making it happen?

DR: But I would add that from a musical standpoint, our goal from the beginning was to capture and monument the current thriving LA jazz scene at the best possible recording quality. There is so much great music happening in our club, night after night. We didn't want that all to get lost in the wind.

AAJ: Talk about the decision to produce vinyl only. With CDs fading away and the resurgence of vinyls making them cool again it strikes me as a solid way to position yourself in the marketplace. Please expand on this subject, including your in-house only sales platform.

DR: In a lot of ways, we realized we were producing music for people who truly appreciate it, the serious fans. And many of the more serious fans tend to prefer analog recording platforms to digital. Paul is one of them. So it seemed in line with our vision to go the extra mile and only press high-quality 180-gram LPs. But a large part of the decision had to do with decisions around the album artwork. The beautiful photos around the perimiter of the Sam First were all taken by Paul on film (analog). We had decided to use these photos as our album covers and for that to be the visual brand of Sam First Records. And if we were going to make these beautiful high-res photos into a tangible piece of art, we would much rather have it printed on a twelve-inch thick stock rather than a four-inch CD booklet.

Sam First Records is powered by ArtistShare Records who was the original fan-funding platform for artists. By using their system, we give the fans several opportunities to participate in the recording and production process. While one fan might be interested in purchasing a digital download of the project, another fan might be interested in purchasing a private lesson with the artist, or even a private concert with the artist and their trio at Sam First or another location. But, no matter the level of participation, every project participant gets access to the Sam First Records Project Experience-an exclusive episodic video series that documents the creative process behind the making of this recording. 

AAJ: How many records has Sam First released? Do you have release dates for others that are in the can?

DR: Yes, the following: Justin Kauflin—digital is out now. Vinyl will be released March 17 (2023); Josh Nelson—digital is out now. Vinyl will be released by the end of March (2023); Joe La Barbera—digital is out now. Vinyl will be released in May (2023); Rachel Eckroth—digital will be out in early March (2023). Vinyl will be released in the fall (2023); Clam City—digital will be out in April (2023). Vinyl will be released in the fall.

AAJ: You referred to the owner of both Sam First and Sam First Records, Paul Solomon. He is clearly quite the entrepreneur. I get the impression that he is not a micro-manager. Instead, hiring the right people and letting them grow and flourish in their own way.

DR: That's exactly right. Paul is incredibly intelligent and while he brings his business mind to our partnership, he also has a great ear for the music. I had met Paul through my dad circa 2012, and then he called me out of the blue in 2017 to tell me he was opening a bar and wanted to have live jazz and asked me if I'd be interested in booking the musicians. I was one of very few jazz musicians who Paul knew, and I guess he just had a feeling we would work well together. And he was right! And yeah, the rest of the bar is like that too. We've got a small but incredibly dedicated crew of people working for both the club and the label, and all of them are essential to our success.

AAJ: As the talent coordinator for the club, you are choosing the artists that play there and who ultimately have a record released. As much as I enjoy fusion, and jazz with vocalists, I dig that you have carved out an identity as mostly an instrumental jazz club. You have established a distinct vibe. What is your criteria for hiring artists to play and ultimately to release a record?

DR: Paul and I have an agreement that we only book artists who we both want to book. So while one of us may be interested in booking a particular artist, if it doesn't pass by both of us, we don't book it. Paul and I both love and appreciate fusion and vocal jazz as well as all sorts of other styles. Ultimately, we tend to lean towards "forward-thinking music" which often doesn't include a vocalist.

On average, I receive between five to fifteen booking inquiries each week. Artists usually reach out by email and send some music or videos. Paul and I meet each Tuesday morning, and while much of our time these days is dedicated to the label, we try to always dedicate some time to listen to the booking inquiries together.

AAJ: No doubt Sam First has become the place to be. Now less than four years later Sam First spawns a record company. That's mighty impressive in today's business climate. Just proof that cool ideas and hard work can still take you places. Thanks for the chat Dave. Best wishes for continued success.

DR: I so appreciate your love of and respect for the club and the label. It really means so much to us.

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