Siegfried Loch: 50 Years on the Music-Making Scene

R.J. DeLuke By

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With a half-century in the music recording business, Siegfried Loch, known to friends and associates as Siggi, has had a huge impact on the jazz music scene in Europe. Jazz isn't the only thing he's been involved in as a producer over all those years, but having his own jazz label—ACT Music, based in Munich, Germany—was always his dream. It's a vision he brought to fruition in 1992, resulting in more than 250 recordings that have received accolades in Europe and well as Grammy nominations in the United States.

The label has brought opportunity and exposure to a great many musicians, many in Scandinavia and Germany, but not exclusively so. While he has produced American jazz men on occasion—Yusef Lateef, Tim Hagans, Joe Pass, David Binney, Terri Lyne Carrington, among others—Loch's focus is on discovering new talent and fostering the careers of the people he's recorded over the years. For American jazz fans, the biggest name to come from the ACT stable was the trio of pianist Esbjorn Svensson, known as e.s.t. That outstanding group, many believe, was headed for global stardom if not for the tragic scuba diving accident that claimed Svensson's life in 2008. That group found its home and voice at ACT.

Loch has used ties he made in his years of association with American companies like Warner Brothers to establish himself, but he's also foraged for talent and has come up with an intriguing array of artists and styles for ACT. He says many of the recordings he produced were done based on original concepts developed in cooperation with the artists. But he also lets them ply their trade, in many cases, with minimal intrusion, preferring to let musicians have things their own way—even if it isn't pleasant to his ears. That's something musicians anywhere would relish.

He seems to have been on the music scene from his early days, and even had, for a time, a jazz group in which he was the drummer after he saw The Beatles perform during their famous embryonic stage at a nightclub in Hamburg, Germany, before the band's meteoric rise.

His label surfaced at a time when recorded music in jazz was being questioned; some say it was stagnant, filled with young musicians who may or may not have merited recording contracts. Many in the critical world were being accused of being to stodgy, too tied to the tradition. But ACT made an immediate splash with Jazzpana (1992), a flamenco-influenced recording arranged by Arif Mardin and—mostly—by Vince Mendoza, then relatively unknown. The recording received two Grammy nominations.

The label grew to its current status of high respect and acclaim. Loch's not a survivor of that period, or these times; he is one of the doers, one of the warriors. Surviving implies being knocked down, and neither ACT, nor Loch himself, has experienced that. Warriors wind their own way through the woods with strength, fortitude and even stealth. In 1998, Loch was awarded a lifetime achievement award by the German Association of Record Reviewers.

He had started in the industry as a salesman with the Import Service of EMI in 1960, but soon, in 1962, he was producer and label manager for Philips, producing projects including albums by George Gruntz and rock albums by Jerry Lee Lewis and Spencer Davis, among others. From 1967 to 1970, he was founding managing director of Liberty/United Artists Records and Metric Music Publishing in Munich, then became founding managing director of WEA Music Hamburg (later Warner Music Germany) and MUZ Music Publishing Munich. In 1975, he was made vice-president of WEA International.

He was already building a roster of German artists. In fact, from 1975 to 1982 he was chairman of the German Record Industry Association.

All the while, the idea of his own label was brewing in his mind. But circumstances, particularly jobs that he could not pass up, kept him from fulfilling the dream (even though he came up with the name ACT in 1962). As he moved around, he became president of WEA Europe Inc. in London and in 1989, a music production company—ACT Music+Vision in Berlin. It was not yet a record label but it soon would be.

Since 1992 ACT, which places a strong emphasis on artists from Scandinavia, has produced fine artists such as Nils Landgren, Ulf Wakenius and Lars Danielsson. Singers are also part of the tapestry, among them the sweet and supple voices of Viktoria Tolstoy and Rigmor Gustafsson.

Loch spoke recently with All About Jazz about his career and it's best to let him fill in the blanks of his illustrious life in music. The casual conversation with the fascinating and genial Loch occurred not long before a ceremony in which he was about to be knighted by King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden for his importance in Swedish culture via recording so many of its fine artists (which took place March 8, 2010).

All About Jazz: You are about to get knighted by the King of Sweden. That's quite an award.

Siggi Loch: As it happens with my label that I started late in my life, I was, by coincidence, running into an incredible trombone player and singer by the name of Nils Landgren at a festival up north in Germany. I was really fascinated by the artist, both his playing and his personality. This was the beginning of recording a Swedish artist. But through Nils, I met a lot of other incredible talented Swedish artists. First of all, of course, Esbjörn Svensson, who at the time was the keyboard player in the Nils Landgren Funk Unit.

It happened that over the years I have been recording a lot of Swedish artists and ACT became the most successful label for Swedish jazz artists. Yet we are German, not a Swedish company. As a result of that, I think, the German ambassador to Sweden, which is a lady here in Berlin, she got the King of Sweden to honor me as a Knight in the Order of the Polar Star, which is an honor I'm very proud of.

AAJ: That's pretty nice.

SL: Yeah. I think it's nice to be recognized for something I've been doing over the years. It's really a great success story but it's also a love story. I heard my first Swedish jazz back in the early '60s when I was honeymooning in Sweden and I was listening for the first time to a Swedish pianist by the name of Jan Johansson, who was the first one in history who took the Swedish folk music and put it into a jazz context. Those records he made at the time were the groundwork for many, many things of the same kind, including everything that we've heard many years later coming out of Norway. It's based on the same principal.

AAJ: I know you founded ACT in 1992, but your association with music obviously goes way back. When did you first start as a listener? What turned you on to jazz?

SL: My very first experience was at the age of 15 when I was gate crashing because we had no money then. But at the age of 15, I was listening to a concert by Sidney Bechet. I was living then in the city of Hanover [Germany]. I had never before heard jazz consciously. That man, in this one hour of performance, changed my life. I became first a Sidney Bechet fan. I bought my first Blue Note record the next day, even though I had no record player. I became a traditional jazz drummer and I formed my own band, which was called the Red Onions, based on a tune by Sidney Bechet.

This is how I got into jazz. But soon I discovered a whole world of jazz and got myself involved as a record collector. Soon, I realized my talent as a drummer and a jazz musician was limited, yet I wanted to be connected to that music. I was dreaming of having my own label one day. One way of getting into it was starting as a salesman for EMI Music, selling records at the stores. That's how I got involved.

Two years later in 1962, I became the label manager for Philips Jazz because at the time they had made licensing deals. First with Mercury Records, with Quincy Jones being head of A&R. Then they had made deals with World Pacific and Riverside Jazz...a lot of other jazz labels. I was in charge of selecting the music and promoting it and so on. So I got my first chance to also produce a record. That artist was Klaus Doldinger, who is one of the legends of German Jazz because in the '70s, he formed the group Passport, which made their thumbprint in America with Atlantic Records.

AAJ: Jazz was fairly available at that time for listeners over there?

SL: Oh yes. Philips at the time was the licensee of CBS, Columbia Records. Then Columbia decided to form their own operation and Philips lost its entire catalog. Some people had the idea then, in the head office in Holland, that jazz would be the next big thing, ruling the pop world, which of course was wrong. But that's why they heavily invested into jazz at the time. That was good for me, because it's how I got the job.

But soon after, I was not only involved in jazz, but also happened to be in Hamburg [Germany] at the time the Star Club opened and The Beatles played there. So I was running into that scene. I realized that a whole new kind of pop music was generating there. I also got involved as a producer in that world. Then soon I was not so much involved in jazz, but basically in pop music. I became the executive for 20 years for Warner Brothers [WEA Corp.] During that period, as the head of Warner in Europe, I had no chance to produce anything.

Except I never forgot my dream of having my own label. So it took me 30 years before I finally did it.

AAJ: You heard the Beatles back in the early years?

SL: Yes. I saw them in 1962. They were playing a whole month in that club. They were one of five bands that played there in a revolving system. They played at 5 in the afternoon until 6 the next morning. The bands were rotating. They came back in June of the same year for another month. That was near the end.

AAJ: Did you know or see anything then that would indicate they would go on to stardom?

SL: No. They were playing the music of Chuck Berry. Like most of the other bands from Liverpool, they were covering American R&B stuff. But they had their own first songs. The most successful tune that they had to repeat every show at the Star Club was a piece by Bobby Scott, "A Taste of Honey." It was a ballad sung by Paul McCartney. That tune also made it onto the first album by the Beatles, [Please Please Me (Parlophone, 1963)] but it was never released as a single.

AAJ: What did you see in jazz that you liked? What about the art form captured you?

SL: What fascinated me more than anything was this idea of individual freedom in a group of equals. That was a fascinating thought for a young boy like myself after World War II. It was very fascinating from a political aspect, not just from a musical aspect. I guess that was fascinating not just me but a lot of my young people of my generation at the time.

AAJ: American jazz was the template at the time.

SL: At that time, West Germany was still dominated by foreign radio. I lived in the north of Germany, that was heavily influenced by the BBC and BFN—the British Forces Network—that's why in the north of Germany, traditional jazz became so popular. While in Frankfort and that area, where the American forces were based, AFN (American Forces Network) was the major influence. That's why in that part of Germany, modern jazz was discovered earlier there by youngsters than in the north. In Munich was the American base. On the west side there was the French, but they didn't have much influence except, of course, Sidney Bechet. He lived in France and his music was very, very popular in Germany. It was a lot more popular at that point in Europe than in America.

AAJ: I think that's why he moved there.

SL: I think he moved there because he was in love with a lady from Frankfort, whom he actually married and stayed in Europe. He was then very sorry to see that Louis Armstrong became the king of jazz: he considered himself being at least as important in the history of jazz as Armstrong was.

AAJ: You had all along in your head the goal of producing jazz.

SL: That's correct. In 1966, when I left Philips as a producer, that was the first time I wanted to start my label and I even had the name ACT already, sketched out on the label. But at that point I was invited to come to the United States, to Los Angeles, to meet Al Bennett, the owner of Liberty Records. He wanted to persuade me to work for him as an independent producer and a consultant. I was only 25 at the time.

AAJ: You met Nesuhi Ertegun around that time?

SL: That was the next step. I did have the chance to meet Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff. Alfred had decided in '67 to quit the business and move to New Mexico. But Francis was still working for Blue Note in New York until he died in 1971. Bennett sold the company to Transamerica (Corp., 1968). He got kicked out. I just felt I don't want to be connected with the new owners. In 1971, I wanted to quit Liberty and then do my label. But then came Nesuhi (then international chairman of WEA Records). I was a big fan of his recordings for Atlantic and also had met him in Berlin before.

He called me up and said, "Hey. I'm on a mission of building an international company for Warner." It wasn't called that then but it became Warner. He said, "I need you to help me in setting up the business in Germany." Nesuhi was a very persuasive guy. He became my mentor and also a kind of fatherly friend over the years. So I worked with him, and for Warner, for as long as he did. We quit on the same day [June 30, 1987], when he had to step down as the chairman of WEA international. At that point I was in with WEA in Europe, I decided to quit as well.

AAJ: So Nesuhi influenced you in a way?

SL: Absolutely. He was a tremendous influence in my life, both business and esthetics and everything.

AAJ: He had quite a track record.

SL: I don't think there are too many people around in the world who had a profound interest and knowledge about music ands sport and art and literature. An amazing man, he was. It's such a pity there is no book on him. There are many on his brother Ahmet Ertegun, his brother, but none on Nesuhi. There's hardly anything to be found on him on the Internet. It's really a shame.

AAJ: After you severed ties there, what was next?

SL: When I finally set up the ACT label, I first went back and started with a project that was instrumental in getting my first job as a jazz label manager. That was a recording by Miles Davis, Sketches of Spain (Columbia, 1960) with Gil Evans. I had developed an interest in Spanish music, in particular flamenco. I felt that this would be the ideal project to start my own label. And in fact, I did.

I met with Vince Mendoza, who in 1992 was a virtually unknown character. He agreed to write the scores with Arif Mardin, who was much more known and popular then, but he didn't have the time to write all the music. So most of it was done by Vince Mendoza and only one suite of the three pieces was written by Arif Mardin for this project called Jazzpana.

That was based on the idea of a big band with jazz musicians. Except Sketches of Spain was really an all-American project with some flamenco taste or flair, but it wasn't really flamenco music, My idea was to take real, actual Spanish flamenco musicians, Spanish jazz musicians, American jazz musicians—such as Peter Erskine, Al Di Meola and Steve Khan—and have a big band behind them. That's what we did and that was the first record I produced and released in 1992 on the ACT label.

I was fortunate it was up for two Grammy nominations. That was not a bad start.

AAJ: That made a splash here, for sure. You stayed with that flamenco theme with The Art of Flamenco (ACT, 1993).

SL: Yes.

AAJ: It was an official label at that point?

SL: Yes, it became an official label in 1992. Before, I had a production company. I was living in London then, 1988. I wanted run the jazz thing. I had a couple of friends and associates who wanted to run on a second leg, an avant-garde rock production for Berlin but that didn't work out. It was a complete mess after a year. I afforded it all and laid back, took a long breath and decided no finance from third parties, no partners and only music that I like, and only recordings that I can personally finance. Do what I think is right and nothing else. That's exactly what I did when I started in 1992. Then it became a real jazz label. Before it was a production company with a production credit. The records were released on Polydor and whatever.

AAJ: So 1992 was the realization of what you had been thinking about for many, many years?

SL: Exactly. Looking back, the only thing I can say is that I should have done it at least 10 years before, but it's alright. I was mature then and I was financially independent, which is good to start something like this and go on this endeavor.

When we started, it was just the year when the record business really started to go down the drain. We were lucky because the company was growing against the trend for almost 20 years, 15 years. But now, of course, we are feeling the problems of the industry, like everybody else.

AAJ: In those early years, how did you go about selecting musicians for the label?

SL: Purely by my own personal taste. I was never interested in signing established names. We made a couple of records with some established names, but that was really people I knew from the past, like Eddie Harris. Yusef Lateef I knew all the way back to the '60s when he was playing with Cannonball Adderley. These were friends where I took some projects on.

But the artists that I signed as exclusive artists to the label were all completely unknown; I built them from scratch. That's what I think is the most interesting part of this kind of work—you find new talent and you try to find a niche audience for their music. That's really what this business should be all about, rather than investing into people that are already on their way up or stealing artists from other labels and all that rubbish, which I, of course, had done as an executive with Warner for almost 20 years. I didn't want to continue this with my own label.

AAJ: You've pretty much stayed with European artists.

SL: Yeah, except now we've signed Vijay Iyer. It's also A question of, since I don't live in the States, I don't have the same kind of inroad to the action and the new scene as I have here. I only know what comes over here from America, artists that are somewhat already established. I don't really know what's going on with the new jazz in America.

Also, I don't have the means to really promote records in America the way I'm able to do it over here. That's why I decided I want to reflect on my label the artists that I live with, which is Europe.

AAJ: There's an emphasis on Scandinavia and Germany.

SL: Correct. But also we signed Pawel Kaczmarczyk (of Poland); I signed him two years ago. I heard him by coincidence, he was a supporting artist for another band that I went to listen to. I wasn't too much impressed by the headliner but I heard this young Polish guy and I really thought, "Wow." I signed him and made the first record [Complexity in Simplicity (2009)]. As it happens, last year he was voted the number one pianist, number one jazz trio and Record of the Year. That really makes me proud that I can find somebody like him, or work with Paolo Fresu of Italy or work with Gerardo Nunez from Spain, or Nguyen Le.

The first exclusive artist I signed to ACT was Nguyên Lê, who is French but his parents are from Vietnam, so he is Vietnamese-French. He's an incredible guitarist.

AAJ: The ACT recordings I've listened to cover a wide spectrum of styles. Your ideas about jazz and your tastes in jazz are widespread.

SL: Yes. One reason why the label is called ACT is I go by the artist and what they represent. So once I decide to go with an artist, I give him the freedom to do what he wants to do. If he is spreading out, like Nguyên Lê does, I don't stop him...or Vince Mendoza, or Nils Landgren. They do different things. Sometimes, they do things that I'm not really crazy about, but as long as I believe in the artist and what he's doing I support him.

AAJ: That's different than a lot of producers over the years in the United States.

SL: You have a good example in ECM. (Label owner and producer Manfred) Manfred Eicher would never release a record that's not totally within the framework of his esthetics. I'm not that rigid, I go more by the artist and his dreams.

AAJ: So that's kind of a trademark of ACT.

SL: I think so. Yes.

AAJ: That was part of your vision from the beginning?

SL: Absolutely. Yes.

AAJ: When you hear talent, out in a club or on a record, what connects with you, in your ear or your mind's eye? What qualities attract your attention?

SL: Most important, I have to be emotionally moved by the music. That's where it starts.

But also, is the artist really interested in communicating with an audience? That's a big problem in jazz. Some of these artists, they produce great jazz maybe but they are not really communicating. They are not interested in communicating, they are interested in making money, but not in communicating human beings.

To me, at least 50 percent of what makes me go for an artist is that I have to be totally convinced that he really wants to touch people. That he's out there to reach people with his music, not just play the music for himself—or for other musicians.

AAJ: People's concept of jazz or definition of jazz has been debated forever; your concept seems to be open. Do you have a set definition?

SL: I really think music—and not jazz only—music that doesn't move people, I'm not interested. There's a lot of that around, but I'm not interested in that kind of music.

AAJ: You don't have, yourself, a definition of jazz. Is that something you stay away from?

SL: Not really. I certainly don't think jazz is only jazz if it's swing, as it used to be, because jazz is more than that. Jazz, first of all, is a way of expressing freedom of mind. That's the key, not that it swings. AAJ: Improvisation and communication.

SL: Correct.

AAJ: Listening to ACT recordings, you can't really pigeon-hole the label. There are so many different styles, all interesting.

SL: Jazz has been ... some people argue about the artist mixing it with world music, but jazz was world music by definition when it was founded in New Orleans. It was nothing but the result of the music from a melting pot, music from different parts of the world. The key element was the individual, who expressed himself by the way of improvising. That's what makes jazz. That's exactly what is still is today.

Some people feel after free jazz there's no more jazz. I'm not interested in that kind of discussion. It doesn't matter.

AAJ: You've had a lot of success stories, like e.s.t., who I saw live about five or six years ago.

SL: Probably. That's when they started going to America regularly. It was a pity, because two weeks after he died (June 14, 2008), the group was supposed to go to New York and play the New York Jazz Festival (JVC Jazz Festival), which would have been fantastic. They had been looking forward to that; dreaming of that for a long time. They were so close. Then this tragedy happened. They're not just one of the most successful jazz groups in the last decade, but they were certainly one of the most influential also—you hear a lot of young piano players immensely influenced by e.s.t.

AAJ: Are they your big success story, or would you not even put that kind of label on people?

SL: They are not really the most successful artists I had signed to Act. If I go by record sales, the artist sold more records for me than any other ACT artist is Nils Landgren. He continues to do so.

But on the other hand, e.s.t was the most influential artist that I had signed. At least one ... (album), Viaticum (ACT, 2005) sold over 100,000 copies, which is something pop artists these days would be proud of. I don't think there are many jazz artists who sell that kind of numbers.

You can say it is one of the rare merits. Not making any compromise with his art, yet being extremely successful. That is very seldom in jazz. Many jazz artists start making compromises to get their audience interested in their art. Smooth jazz or whatever you may call it. e.s.t. never did that—they made no compromise whatsoever. This was a real jazz trio, and yet they fascinated the audience when most, or 50 percent, had never gone to a jazz concert before. I think that's what jazz really needs [chuckles]. I'm approaching 70 and I feel so bad when I go to concerts and clubs and I see the audience to be about my age.

AAJ: Listening to Nils Landgren, his music is assessable, but creative.

SL: He loves that. He's always been like that. He is true as true as an artist as Esbjörn was, but in a different way. He is a virtuoso on the trombone, but he also loves pop music. He loves that funk stuff and he does it very well.

AAJ: You alluded earlier to the health of the industry. Record labels in the U.S. have been falling by the wayside. The industry is in flux and still figuring out what to do in the era of new technology and the Internet. Is it the same for you over there, or a bit different in Europe?

SL: It's the same thing here. It hurts to see how people are fighting for survival. Every day we are getting news that another distributor went bust, another couple of stores closed down. It hurts. But there is very little one can do. It's the result of the new technology and young people just don't buy records. Some of them, they download and pay for it. But most of them download and don't pay for it.

AAJ: When it all shakes out, for lack of a better expression, will there be a place for larger labels? Some people here say they will survive in some form, some say they won't.

SL: I have no idea. It's not to say for those who have been spending all their lives in the music business as we know it what the future will be. I think people who will be able to define that will be those who come into the music business now and don't have the history of the record industry. If they go into this with a fresh mindset and figure out how to communicate between the artist and their public. It will not be by means of records ... records will exist, of course, but primarily for collectors and as a souvenir. People will buy records when they go to a gig like they used to buy a program, and keep it. The idea of taking a piece of a great evening home and preserving it.

But that's not what the record business was all about. The music was driven by records. People were making their money with records and touring was a way of promoting record sales. Now, it's the other way around. The only thing we do with our records is help get the artist jobs and survive. That's what it is.

AAJ: Records would document the development of someone's career, as well.

SL: Exactly. So an artist making their own record, it's so easy to do that. They put it out themselves. I think you'll see another merger of the giants. Warner and Polygram will probably merge soon. Then we have three majors left.They will live forever, because their catalogs will be important for any kind of technology, download or what have you, because people will be interested in that music. But for a new label that is out there to help young talent define their audience, it's impossible. You can't make a living. You can't pay any employees. You have no money for promotion or advertising. That's where it really becomes a problem.

AAJ: But ACT is still going strong at the moment.

SL: Yes. I'm turning 70 soon and I think, at least I hope, I'll be able to do it another five years. I don't see that the record business is going down that much that I can't survive [chuckles]. As far as I'm concerned, I'm OK.

AAJ: Is the European jazz scene in general pretty healthy?

SL: Yes. There is a lot of interesting stuff coming up all the time. I'm out there checking it out. I have this incredible young pianist out there—this German guy by the name of Michael Wollny who's a true giant, or will be, I hope, some day. The talent is massive, as I said. Then I signed Yaron Herman, the Israeli who lives in France and is amazing. I continue to work with Vijay Iyer, who's still a young guy—there's so much to expect from that guy.

There's a lot. I can't do everything, but there's a lot to put my teeth in.

AAJ: So across 50 years, good times, rough times, it's been pretty good?

SL: It keeps me alive, keeps my mind fresh and keeps me away from doing silly things [chuckles].

Selected Discography

Nils Landgren Funk Unit, Funk for Life (ACT, 2010)
Lars Danielsson, Tarantella (ACT, 2009)
Joachim Kuhn and Micheal Wollny, Piano Works IX, Live at Schloss Elmau (ACT, 2009)
e.s.t., Live in Hamburg (ACT, 2007)
Viktoria Tolstoy, Shining on You (ACT, 2006)
Solveig Slettahjell Slow Motion Quintet, Pixiedust (ACT, 2005)
Nils Landgren & Joe Sample, Creole Love Call (ACT, 2005)
Ulf Wakenius, Notes From the Heart (ACT, 2005)
Esbjörn Svensson Trio (e.s.t.), Viaticum (ACT, 2005)
Rigmor Gustafson and Jacky Terrasson Trio, Close to You (ACT, 2004)
Nils Landgren, Sentimental Journey (ACT, 2002)
Paolo Fresu, Sonos 'E Memoria (ACT, 2001)
NDR Big Band/Colin Towns, The Theatre of Kurt Weill (ACT, 2000)
Eddie Harris, The Last Concert (ACT, 1997)
Nguyên Lê, Huong Thanh, Paolo Fresu, Tales from Viet-Nam (ACT, 1996)
Nils Landgren Funk Unit/Brecker Brothers, Paint It Blue (ACT, 1997)
Vince Mendoza/Arif Mardin, Jazzpana (ACT, 1992)

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