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Songlines: An Independent Voice for New Music

Mark Werlin By

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Plot a zig-zag route from Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal, to San Francisco and Reno, from New York to Amsterdam, Paris and Berlin, with a stopover in Tehran, and you'll appreciate Songlines' geographic reach. The label's musical territory is not defined by language, history or culture; the goal of Songlines is to transcend boundaries.
The independent Vancouver-based record label Songlines Recordings was established in 1992. Inspired by the contemporary jazz music scene in Vancouver, label founder Tony Reif began recording Canadian, American, Dutch, German and French composer-performers. Over the next two decades, the core group of musicians who recorded frequently for Songlines included Benoit Delbecq, Harris Eisenstadt, Gordon Grdina, Wayne Horvitz, Francois Houle, Brad Shepik and Michael Blake. Plot a zig-zag route from Vancouver, Toronto, and Montreal, to San Francisco and Reno, from New York to Amsterdam, Paris and Berlin, with a stopover in Tehran, and you'll appreciate Songlines' geographic reach. The label's musical territory is not defined by language, history or culture; the goal of Songlines is to transcend boundaries.

"The term 'songlines' refers to Australian aboriginal performances of song and dance in which tales of the ancestral creator beings are enacted in the places where those events unfold in the now-and-always Dreamtime. This idea of a deep-roots musical journey seemed to offer a kind of metaphor for music in our globalizing world that forges imaginative new paths through different cultures and traditions without sacrificing the depth of those traditions." Tony Reif, excerpted from the Songlines website.

The imperative not to sacrifice the depth of cultural traditions is one of the guiding principles of Songlines. Among the label's earlier cross-cultural releases was an album of Persian music in traditional and modern settings (Amir Koushkani: Quest) and a trio of Amir Koushkani, clarinetist-composer François Houle and Puerto Rican-born percussionist-composer Sal Ferreras (Safa: Alight). Canadian guitarist Gordon Grdina, inspired by his studies of the oud, and of Egyptian and Iraqi music, recorded Gordon Grdina/Gary Peacock/Paul Motian: Think Like the Waves and Gordon Grdina's Haram: Her Eyes Illuminate. Label founder Tony Reif has a longstanding connection to world music through his own artistic participation in the ensemble Gamelan Madu Sari.

Songlines albums from the mid-1990s include breakthrough recordings by musicians in the New York "downtown" jazz scene who went on to become highly influential in shaping the direction of new music, among them Dave Douglas: Tiny Bell Trio, Ben Monder: Flux, Ellery Eskelin: Jazz Trash, and Chris Speed: Yeah No.

The Songlines model is artist-centered. Tony Reif functions as the executive producer, and most recordings are musician-produced. Some projects receive financial support from the Canada Council, and some of the French recordings through government-related arts subsidies. But as Reif explains:

"More often, projects are funded (these days) though a combination of money out of the artist's own pocket, along with a usually smaller amount from Songlines. This is very different from what it was when I started. Of course, the whole financial basis of the recording industry at every level has been severely undercut by streaming."

Despite the daunting financial challenges of operating a jazz label in an era of diminishing sales revenues, Songlines remains committed to releasing its productions in the highest quality audio. Nearly all Songlines titles recorded from 2001 to 2009 were pressed as hybrid multi-channel SACDs. In 2009, the label switched platforms to hi-resolution downloads and CDs, and reissued its SACD catalog as stereo hi-resolution files.

Optimum sound quality is a hallmark of Songlines' productions. Though recordings are made in studios in New York, Vancouver, Paris and elsewhere, many Songlines releases receive final mastering by Graemme Brown at Zen Mastering in Gabriola Island, BC.

"I try to make sure that the studios and engineers I'm working with understand the sonic aesthetic I'm after—which is not an unusual one for jazz—unlike Chesky's or M-A's minimalist approach, which I think would be more expected in classical chamber music. In that sense, I don't think of Songlines as an audiophile label, or anyway not a purist one. I believe in close mic'ing, isolation (where needed for technical reasons) and reverb, a little compression or limiting here and there, maybe some overdubbing, whatever enhances the music and realizes the composer/performers' intentions. We're fostering or (re)creating an illusion, the illusion of being in the presence of the musicians as they are performing, in an ideal (upfront) seat. For that you need good equipment and flexible studios and engineers who know how to use the means at their disposal, know what real, acoustic-electric music sounds like."

The development of long-term working relationships with composer-musicians is one of Songlines' most lasting accomplishments. Songlines artists record for other record labels, but their artistic progress can be clearly charted over the years of their Songlines productions. Benoît Delbecq has eight Songlines releases under his own leadership, and appears on numerous other sessions; with the group Kartet; pianist Andy Milne and clarinetist Francois Houle. The evolution of composer-drummer Harris Eisenstadt's Canada Day and Golden State ensembles has been documented on five Songlines releases since 2011. Guitarist Brad Shepik, widely active in the New York and European jazz scene, has recorded numerous times for Songlines.

In 2016, the label released a hi-res download album and CD of Brad Shepik and Ron Samworth's session Quartet 1991, digitally mixed and mastered from analogue tapes recorded in the title year. It was an early effort by producer Tony Reif to capture the excitement of the Seattle/Vancouver jazz scene at the beginning of the decade. The tapes were shelved for 25 years, and their current incarnation as hi-res downloads makes a useful case study of how technology can serve to archive and distribute older recordings in the computer audio environment.

Brad Shepik/Ron Samworth: Quartet 1991

In a recording career spanning 25 years, Brad Shepik has led 10 sessions under his own name and appeared on 70 more as a sideman. His stylistic flexibility and wide-ranging interests have kept him in demand, in projects ranging from Dave Douglas' Tiny Bell Trio to Paul Motian's Electric Bebop Band, to Simon Shaheen's Quantara.

Prior to leaving his native Seattle for greater opportunities in New York, Brad Shepik wrote a set of original compositions for two guitars, acoustic bass and drums. Ron Samworth, a long-time contributor to Vancouver's jazz scene, brought in several of his own compositions. Tony Reif and engineer Jay Follette recorded the quartet of Shepik, Samworth, bassist Phil Sparks and drummer Michael Sarin for two days. On evaluation, the creative team decided that the performances didn't do justice to the compositions. The sessions remained unreleased until recently, when Tony Reif had the 2" multitrack analogue tapes transferred to 24/192 digital, which allowed him and engineer Erik Nielsen to review, remix and edit the performances to bring out the strengths and minimize the (perceived) flaws in the original sessions.

Artists can be the harshest judges of their own work. The performances on Quartet 1991 stand on their own merits, without excuse for insufficient rehearsal time. The record sounds lively and compelling 25 years after it was recorded and it's notable that the set doesn't sound mired in the downtown musical vibe of the early 1990s. Shepik's tone palette varies from clean to distorted, his melodic lines from legato fast-tempo triplets to choppy staccato phrases. Guitarist-composer Ron Samworth has expressed misgivings about his own performance on the Quartet 1991 sessions. His feelings notwithstanding, the first-time listener to this recording is likely to find more in Samworth's playing to admire than to critique. He plays very tightly in rhythmic and thematic synch with Shepik, and his solos are refreshingly cliché-free.

There's a mood of exploration, rather than destination, in many of the pieces. The lead-off, "Confluenza," opens with an "oriental" minor-key phrase played in near-unison by the two guitarists in a style reminiscent of King Crimson's Discipline period. Controlled dynamics and spare drumming opens space for Samworth's cerebral soloing. A quiet interlude precedes the climax and coda.

"Terrestrials" follows a more conventional head and solos form, but leans closer to prog-rock in its overall impact than to jazz fusion or earlier modern jazz styles. Shepik was born in 1966 and was as likely to be influenced by the revival of progressive rock in the 1980s as the wave of jazz-rock fusion from the early 1970s. Noise-making played over frameworks of disciplined rhythms; quiet passages that burst out unexpectedly in torrents of musical aggression.

Highlights of the set are the contemplative "Nightbirds" and the closing "Song of Then," the longest track on the album. "Nightbirds" is a tightly-structured multi-part piece that mixes composed lines and short improvisational passages. It's a satisfying, melodically memorable work. "Song of Then" with its expansive 9-minute length, includes a well-conceived bass solo from Phil Sparks and subtle rhythmic support from drummer Michael Sarin, and draws the set quietly to its conclusion.

Transferring an original analogue recording directly (and conscientiously) to hi-res digital preserves the analogue character of the sound. While many original digital recordings from the late 1980s and early 90s sound artificial, hard and flat, the 24/192 transfer of the Quartet 1991 multitrack studio tapes, and the careful efforts to mix, edit and master them, yields a warm sonic playback experience, more like a good late-era LP than an antiseptic early CD.

In the 25 years since he recorded Quartet 1991 Brad Shepik has continued to grow and develop as a player and composer. This early example of his composing was well worth preserving and distributing. Songlines' successful history with Shepik attests to the confidence Tony Reif expressed in 1991when he financed the sessions. Shepik's ambitious Human Activity Suite, originally released by Songlines on SACD in 2009 and currently available on CD and hi-res download, won high praise from jazz critics.

Track Listing: Confluenza; Terrestrials; Bent House; Circa; Nightbirds; PLAW; Ramblin'; Way In; Song of Then

Personnel: Brad Shepik, electric guitar (left channel); Ron Samworth, electric guitar (right channel); Phil Sparks, bass; Michael Sarin, drums

Format: Recorded in multi-track analogue, mixed and mastered 24/192 digital

Harris Eisenstadt: Canada Day IV

Enter the album name hereComposing new music for players who live in different parts of the world places unique demands and constraints on the composer, and on the record label. In the liner notes to Canada Day IV, Harris Eisenstadt addresses the circumstances that delayed the recording:

"I brought the pieces into rehearsals, then we played a series of concerts over the course of a year. We started with a four-night run in May 2014 at Douglass Street Music. I was tempted to record after that first run, but decided instead to let the material gestate. Due to scheduling challenges (everyone in the band is, predictably, super-busy), we did not re-convene until our European tour in November 2014... and we returned ready to record, but I had booked some New York concerts long in advance and decided to keep them, to let the material percolate further. Finally, in January 2015, we... made the record in a seamless day-long session."

The passage of so much time from composition to recording, during which Eisenstadt and his colleagues were only able to convene for a short tour and a brief residency, raises concerns about the forces adversely impacting the development of jazz. The scheduling demands on working musicians, the high costs of touring and low compensation for performing, and the geographic distance that separates players are factors in slowing the rate of development of new music, and especially, the speed with which audiences are apprised of those developments.
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