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Whirlwind Recordings: Celebrating 10 years

Friedrich Kunzmann By

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I'm emotionally attached to everything I put out and I think all the releases merit a spot in the sunlight. —Michael Janisch, bassist, founder Whirlwind Recordings
This year London-based label Whirlwind Recordings is celebrating its 10th anniversary and looking back at a decade, during the course of which the label has grown to become an important brand in the jazz scene and beyond, with over 140 top-tier albums released under its name so far. The distinguished mark, which Whirlwind has established over the years, is less defined by a certain roster of artists or a specific sound than it is by a great diversity in musical styles and a remarkable consistency in quality. By showing the same amount of support and openness for newcomer artists as for already well-established musicians, Whirlwind has created an environment in which creativity can flourish and musicians are able to rely on an experienced platform for support in everything from production to distribution.

Among the pioneers on the label are heavy-weights such as drummer Jeff Williams, who signed to the label from early on, as well as the English composer Mike Gibbs. A younger generation of jazz musicians also graces the Whirlwind catalogue; artists such as John Escreet, Ivo Neame and Walter Smith III, to name but a few, have been making a name for themselves in the contemporary jazz scene and are playing increasingly important and influential roles.

For its tenth anniversary, Whirlwind has an extensive assemblage of quality releases in store, led by Will Vinson's January outing Four Forty One and Jure Pukl's Broken Circles. These were followed in March by Andrew Bain's limited vinyl-only production No Boundaries. May saw the release of In Common II, the anticipated follow-up collaboration between Matthew Stevens and Walter Smith III. Releases from an all-new trio featuring Gilad Hekselman, Will Vinson and Antonio Sanchez, as well as Rudresh Mahanthappa's new Hero Trio are in the pipeline.

Naturally, a host of tours and concerts that had been scheduled to accompany the respective releases have been cancelled in the meantime, due to the Covid-19 Virus. In light of the label's anniversary and the currently challenging situation caused by the virus, All About Jazz got together with the bassist, composer, Whirlwind- founder and label-head Michael Janisch, to talk about the label's roots, its evolution over the years and how Whirlwind plans to celebrate its 10th anniversary. As Walter Smith III's European tour, for which Janisch was standing in on bass, has also been cancelled, Janisch is currently at home London, taking care of business in a very different way than usual.

All About Jazz: What initially drove you to start your own label? And what were your aspirations as to what the label was supposed to represent?

Michael Janisch: At first the label was simply a means for me to release my own music. At the time, it seems, there were still more jazz labels around. The British label Sirocco Music, which fell apart in 2009 [the catalogue of Sirocco music is now available via the Silva Screen Music Group] in specific comes to mind as a point of orientation at the time. They had a really nice catalogue and I loved their very diverse mix of artists and music. I liked that model.

The reason why I wasn't too keen on joining any of the jazz labels at that time was that I'd heard disillusioning things about how they remunerate their artists. I'd submitted my project to the known jazz labels at the time and the offers that I got back would've basically resulted in me handing over my music and album, which at the time, to a certain extent, represented my life's savings, and the label would then take it as a license deal and never pay me royalties. But since I was the one who had invested all the money that went into producing all the music, those deals weren't an option for me.

I was of course aware of the fact that the whole model of the industry and label business had somewhat collapsed due to the advent of online piracy. I didn't have delusions of grandeur in terms of getting signed to a major label or such either, but I just thought there would be some kind of monetary incentive to joining a label. However, that wasn't the case. So I went ahead and started Whirlwind Recordings. I don't remember thinking to myself at the beginning, that I would sign loads of artists or reach a certain turnover within a couple of years. Those aspects just started developing over time.

AAJ: How did things evolve? Could you go a little more into detail on how your label's activity grew?

MJ: In the first year there were only two or three releases. I didn't go out looking for albums to sign because, first of all, signing other artists wasn't initially a priority for me, and second of all, there wasn't an institution or platform where you could just go and look for projects to sign. The first signings on Whirlwind resembled partnerships, cooperative deals rather than your standard label-signing. As the first couple of years went by, I fast realized, that this model wasn't sustainable and that I would need to find a more profitable solution, seeing how I was starting to work another entire full-time job outside of making music, as a manager of a label. That's when I started taking the label as a business a lot more seriously. In conclusion, to answer your initial question more accurately, I created my own label because I wanted to have full artistic control over everything I released and, both for myself and the artists who sign to the label, provide the best and fairest possible deal.

AAJ: What kind of details does a "fair deal" entail?

MJ: Each deal is of course different and customized according to what the artist requires or depending on how experienced or established the artist is in the music industry. We work with a wide range of artists, so there are some artists for whom we fund the entire album, some artists we pay signing bonuses to, other artists, who are just starting out, we provide a big platform for. We might not be able to invest as much into them, but we give them reports on sales and pay royalties. We pride ourselves in offering that, because many labels out there aren't doing the same. Most of the artists whose work we've put out come back and resign with us, and I take that as a sign, that what we're doing is working.

AAJ: How do you go about deciding on who you sign? How much creative control do the artists keep subsequently to signing with Whirlwind Recordings?

MJ: It's very important to me that we don't ever steer anyone in a direction that they don't want to go. That's our top priority. Usually an artist brings their music to us and if it connects with me and has certain sonic qualities, I'll put it out. I've never put out anything on Whirlwind that I wasn't proud of musically as if it was my own record.

AAJ: The music you put out on your label covers a very wide range of genres and stylistic approaches which is rather unusual in today's label landscape. What vision drives your decision making in regard to what you want to release on Whirlwind?

MJ: What we put out reflects my own musical personality to a certain degree. As a bassist I've never discriminated any kind of musical style. If I enjoy the music and have good musicians to play with, then I'm happy to play it. In the last 10 years or so I've played creative improvised music of some sort exclusively, but always in a different stylistic context. So I get to play funk, drum and bass or electronic dance music. I get to play reggae and jazz but always in an improvised context. I wanted the label to follow that similar type of aesthetic. The output on the label is very much in cohesion with the label's name itself. If you use a whirlwind as a visual analogy of the music we release, the whirlwind would be this big tornado of jazz and improvised music, which today features an infinite amount of different influences and sub-genres. The binding thread for me is that the music has an improvised notion to it and that's exactly modelled after my own playing career. To have been able to create a career and a label that models my own musical tastes has been incredibly hard but all the more rewarding.

AAJ: Beyond putting promising newcomers and, in the jazz world, lesser known but highly original musicians on the map (songwriter Matt Gold's Imagined Sky (2020) or the avant-garde/songwriter Alice Zawadzki's Within You Is A World of Spring (2019), for example), Whirlwind also signs heavyweights in modern jazz, such as Rudresh Mahanthappa, Ingrid Jensen, Walter Smith III or Jeff Williams, to name only a few. How do you approach these artists to put their work out on your label?

MJ: The thing is, I usually don't. Most projects have come to me through friends or through touring. I remember how we got John Escreet's album on the label [ Sabotage and Celebration, 2013]. He and I were hanging out together in Brooklyn after not having seen each other in a long while and by the end of taking a walk around Prospect Park together we decided to put his album out. Then there's other examples like with Walter [Smith III]. Him and Matthew Stevens had gone to Berklee [College of music] with me so they knew about me musically from then. We'd also toured together on various occasions over the years and I'd even hired them at one point so they got to see my business side as well, prior to signing with Whirlwind. Subsequently we released Stevens' debut [ Woodwork, 2015] as well as Romain Pilon's Colorfield (2013), on which I play with Walter Smith, and finally we released Walter Smith's Twio , (2018) as well as the In Common project, which will see a third installment come out too. It all tends to happen organically like that.

AAJ: In Common has seen a special amount of critical acclaim.

MJ: I really feel strongly about that series of albums. They're special combinations of virtuoso musicians with Walter Smith III and Matthew Stevens always at the core, and we're trying to playfully adapt the vinyl releases to that aesthetic: the first one was yellow-colored, the second one white, the third will get a different-colored release. There's this comical running theme with the front cover. The whole trilogy of albums has a conceptual thing going for it.

AAJ: If you had to sum up your label's output over the past ten years in a couple of albums, which ones would you pick?

MJ: That's really hard. As I'd said before, I'm emotionally attached to everything I put out and I think all the releases merit a spot in the sunlight. Having these musicians entrust my label with their music is something I'm very proud of. But in terms of crucial events I would definitely count the signing of Jeff Williams among them. He was the first big name who came to the label. He's stuck with us ever since and he's been incredibly supportive, too. To have such an icon within our roster is truly great.

Then in the UK one of the first big signings was Alex Garnett [ Serpent , 2011], who put a stamp on the label right from the get-go. Same goes for Phil Robson. There's also Andy Milne's Forward in All Directions (2014) and then Paul Jackson who released Groove or Die in that same year. Afterwards we also had Mike Gibbs sign with us, who's also pretty much a legend. In terms of somewhat groundbreaking albums I would have to name The Anton Webern Project by John O'Gallagher which was very unique and ambitious. I believe that release spoke to the New York creative scene a lot. Nia Lynn's Points of View (2013) sort of opened our doors for more singer-songwriter oriented music which was also an important step for the label. Rachael Cohen and Alice Zawadzki have to be named in that context, too.

Another album from quite early on that comes to mind would be the live date between late Lee Konitz, Jeff Williams, Dan Tepfer and myself [ First Meeting—Live in London (2014)]. Skipping ahead a few years we have Rez Abbasi's Unfiltered Universe (2017), Walter Smith's Twio (2018), Seamus Blake's Guardians of the Heart Machine and just an ever-growing vast array of different recordings and artists such as Tori Freestone or Josephine Davies. I could just keep naming names, from last year's We speak Luniwaz by Scott Kinsey to releasing an African-infused jazz album by Michael Olatuja [Lagos Pepper Soup 2020], which features artists like Lionel Loueke, Aaron Parks and many more. But really, to my mind all of the music we put out there is great, or else I wouldn't release it.

Other great artists published on Whirlwind that I could mention are Tim Armacost, Canadian saxophonist Quinsin Nachoff, Patrick Cornelius, French pianist Tony Tixier who's part of the group Scopes as well as of course Kenny Warren and Jasper Blom. Saxophonist Julian Siegel and pianist Simon Purcell have also released music with us. All of these people's releases are absolutely worth checking out and representative of Whirlwind Recordings in their own respective ways.

AAJ: A list of names that once again attests to the diversity of your catalogue.

MJ: We'll sometimes receive mails by customers commenting on how diverse the music we put out is. Most are really appreciative of it; others talk about how they'd prefer us sticking to one stylistic direction. Some customers have recommended I break our releases down in genres for them to get a better overview from which part of our catalogue to choose from; much like Nonesuch —a label that I love— who also release a wide range of different music but divide it up into genres on their website. I've always refused that notion, because my whole approach with Whirlwind is based around the idea that human-made music labels [as in genres] are not important if the music is simply good and has soul. Of course, I understand why stores and other platforms will categorize things so that their customers can find their preferred style more easily, but we at Whirlwind are not concerned about that, because we see our output as one musical family. That's also why I've instructed my press writers to avoid the compartmentalizing of our music in the press releases. People who are afraid of a certain genre just might be surprised. This way we give them the possibility of checking the music out before they have any preconceptions about it due to the genre-tag.

AAJ: I'm assuming the whole situation with the Covid virus is having a very negative impact on Whirlwind's activity currently?

MJ: Yes, a lot of stores are closed, our main wholesale warehouse was forced to shut down because it has over 800 employees working too closely together. That's really affected our global orders. So currently we're having a hard time getting our product out there. The best thing for people to do, if they're interested in getting Whirlwind releases at the moment, is to buy them off of our artists' or our own website, because so far during this pandemic, Amazon and other stores have drastically slowed their ordering or are completely closed and returning stock. The great thing about our online store is that it's a direct link from label to fan, and all the proceeds after the credit card fees are retained by the label and distributed to artists according to their deals, which are usually a 50/50 split. And we're going to keep going to the post office to send out our releases until the authorities tell us we can't [laughs half-seriously]. Another effect of the virus is that all the merch, which was planned to be sold on the various and now cancelled summer tours and festivals, is now overflowing, so we've had to get a bigger storage unit to hold it. So if anyone was planning on seeing any of our artists on tour this summer, they should please consider grabbing their merch directly off their site if they have it available, or our site where we have plenty of stock.

AAJ: How are you currently spending your time locked up at home?

MJ: Well, normally I'm booked up with gigs and other work, therefore this is truly a unique and new situation for me, as for most people, of course. Besides spending time with my family, I'm just working on my own music, writing new music and, as a label, we're developing some online initiatives to raise support and we're trying to get more traction via the website.

AAJ: Happy 10th birthday! Here's hoping the virus situation improves and the birthday gets a nice celebration, nonetheless.

MJ: Thank you

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