Meet Jeff Penney, the Sons of Sound record label's founder and president. And producer. And artist-and-repertoire rep. And, well, for that matter, sole employee.
Penney started Sons of Sound in 1997, and though it may be a fledgling label compared to some of the jazz heavyweights, in years to come its stock may rise to rival other better-known American examples.
When he's not in the recording studio, working with artists or dealing with distributors, Penney works a dayjob in investment banking. At 44, he's tall and trim, with short-cropped graying hair, sharp features and an equally sharp mind. Penney conveys the impression of someone who holds a business or law degree. He doesn't, though he graduated from Princeton in 1983 with a major in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.
"One of the reasons I started the label is that I wanted to run a business and learn things, he said. "So in some ways, any money I lose running the record label is less money than I would have spent getting an M.B.A.
The label has not been profitable so far, but that hasn't stopped Penney from pursuing his labor of love. "I really felt that some of these artists were important enough that they should be documented, he said. Among those artists are the pianist, composer and arranger Mike Holober; Trio East, from the Eastman Conservatory's jazz faculty; bassist and vocalist Jay Leonhart; drummer Akira Tana; and acoustic jazz guitarist Gene Bertoncini, the bestseller to date on the label's roster.
The Sons of Sound catalog includes some classical music, but for now Penney exclusively produces jazz. Among his goals, he said, is to "bring jazz forms and extremely talented instrumental technique under the nose of young people.
To do so, he employs a three-pronged plan. First, Penney makes sure the music is available online for download. If he's producing a lower-profile artist's original compositions, he'll also encourage arranging a standard or twoboth to give the listener a point of reference and to have the artist turn up among online search engine hits.
Because many jazz aficionados also appreciate liner notes and creative packaging, though, Penney also offers album artwork with pop-culture appeal that harks back to the '50s and '60s (credit here goes to the talented graphic designer Francisco Lopez). "One of the corners most people will cut is graphic design, said Penney, "but in my mind it's never a good idea. The final prong is producing artists with a commitment to music educationplayers who work in college jazz departments teaching a younger generation of students.
The label's name is a reflection of Penney's own eclectic taste in music. It comes from what he calls an undocumented David Bowie lyric, the background vocal on the song "Sons of the Silent Age . But the gesture to Bowie is not just a coincidence. Growing up in the '70s, Penney was influenced by the decade's progressive rock, especially Bowie and fellow Brits Brian Eno and Robert Fripp of King Crimson. "They're three very creative musicians who are very smart businessmen - there's room for both, he said.
"There are elements of creativity that you can apply in the arts and in business and entrepreneurial activities, Penney continued. He feels that running the label while working an investment job keeps him fresh. They're a different way of looking at things, he said, but "you can take things you learn in one endeavor and bring them to bear on another.
Mike Holober has released two albums, leading a big band and a quintet respectively, on Sons of Sound. Another quintet recording, featuring bassist John Patitucci, drummer Brian Blade, saxophonist Tim Ries and guitarist Wolfgang Muthspiel, is due out in October. Holober said that he was looking for the right situation to record as a leader and found it in Sons of Sound. What attracted him was both Penney's accessibility and the artistic freedom he supports. "Jeff gets behind it with his energy and gives it his time, said Holober. "Once I saw that's how things were going to be, I said, 'let's give it a try.'
Though Penney may wear a suit and tie to his day job, it "doesn't mean I'm totally square, he said. Far from itas a drummer in the jazz ensemble at Princeton, he supported artist-in-residence Benny Carter in both big band and small-combo performances. It was a transforming experience for Penney, though it didn't propel him to pursue a professional music career. "Being an engineer, I can execute things, he said, "but I'm not as creative as I'd like to be. It may be a blessing in disguise for the artists Penney is producing on Sons of Sound.
Visit Sons of Sound on the web.