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Winter & Winter

Sean Patrick Fitzell By

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I'm always looking for something new and going somewhere else —Stephan Winter, Founder
Even as critics, and some musicians, continue to debate what is and isn't jazz, visionary artists defy the static definitions that categorize music, blurring the boundaries between composed and improvised, classical and jazz, and traditional and contemporary. The Winter & Winter (W&W) label reflects this aesthetic, and since its inception in 1997, has given voice to many genre-flouting musician-composers.

"The time now is absolutely exciting—the music is exploding and something new is happening and it's really beautiful," says label founder, namesake and executive producer Stefan Winter. From 1985 to 1995, he ran the influential JMT (Jazz and Music Today) label and documented the work of emerging talents, such as vocalist Cassandra Wilson, trumpeter Herb Robertson and saxophonists Steve Coleman, Greg Osby and Tim Berne, to refute the notion that nothing new was happening in jazz.

While still running JMT, Winter had conceived of a new label that went further. "It's not about categories of music," he says, but about looking simultaneously to the past and future. Part of the catalog explores classical works from the 16th through 20th centuries, while much of it is devoted to improvisation and the development of original music.

Sometimes artists do both. Pianist Uri Caine, for example, has re-conceptualized the music of Mahler, Wagner and Bach and presented his own compositions and ideas on CDs including Bedrock, Blue Wail and Solitude. The eclectic has found a home at W&W. The label boasts modern conceptualists like composer Mauricio Kagel, electronic sound artist Barry Bermange and violinist Vittorio Ghielmi, along with the European folk-inspired work of multi-instrumentalist Stian Carstensen, the rock-tinged explorations of drummer Jim Black and the improvisations of guitarist Noël Akchoté.

With more than 100 titles in its catalog (plus 54 JMT titles reissued to date), W&W features an unconventional combination that attracts loyal listeners. Though Winter would like to have more security, the label is financially self-sustaining, putting it in better shape than many independents. But Winter does not worry about how well a particular title sells. Instead, he pursues projects that excite him and that he feels connected to. The stylistically far-flung catalog mirrors his decidedly broad tastes.

"I live absolutely in the present," Winter says. "I'm always looking for something new and going somewhere else." This opinion holds for not only the music, but also the art and packaging. W&W CDs are perhaps more recognizable than any other, with their distinct hard cardboard Smartpacs, which evoke the image of hardcover books. Winter experimented with the packaging for a couple of years, motivated by his dislike for plastic jewel cases that scratched, cracked, and fell apart with age. "It's disrespectful to the music to do it that way," Winter says, just like you wouldn't put a fine wine in a cheap plastic cup.

The generally austere elegance of the covers also gives the label a unified look that suggests substance over flash. Inside, the cases have pages of photographs, drawings, or paintings from noted artists, such as Stephen Byram, Yoshitomo Nara and Günter Mattei. The images can complement or clash with it, according to Winter. It may be chosen by him, the musician, or executive producer Mariko Takahashi, but the imagery should have meaning, he says.

The photos accompanying Caine's recent Live at the Village Vanguard are a literal relation. Taken on the nights of the recording, the photos work with the music to create a complete documentation of a working band. But for Winter, documenting is not enough, and Caine has taken to heart Winter's notion of conceiving recording projects that are "audio films—a film for closed eyes." With 13 releases on W&W, from experimental funk and solo piano work to his reinterpretation of classical and popular 19th century Tin Pan Alley music, Caine embodies the label's aesthetic. Not every label would consistently indulge an artist with a scope as wide as his.

"What is really special about Stefan is that he tries to find a way to make things happen, which is very inspiring," Caine says. Their relationship has allowed him to explore his varied ideas and cultivate different audiences from the jazz and classical worlds. With the live CD finished, he is working on tracks with his Bedrock electric trio and an opera based on Othello. Caine is impressed with Winter's ability to heed the details and still maintain the long view.

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