Challenging Sounds from Canada’s West Coast
for CODA

I love the challenge of producing records well, and I try to keep up with technology,” states Tony Reif, owner of Vancouver, B.C.’s Songlines Recordings.

Now in its 13th year, the West Coast-based label has 56 CDs in its catalogue, many of which mix jazz with World and so-called classical music. Besides recording projects from Canadian, American and European musicians – sometimes in international groups – every Songlines CD since 2002 has been released as a hybrid SACD.

Although he admits “the discs are about twice as expensive to manufacture as regular CDs, without being able to be sold at a comparable premium”, as an audiophile Reif says, “I look at high-res as an investment in the future of this music.

“If people still want to hear my CDs 10 or 20 years from now, I want them to be as vivid and powerful as whatever technology is being used for new recordings. If what one hears in the mastering studio could be conveyed to the home listener in all its glory for a reasonable financial outlay in a playback system, there isn't a music lover on earth who wouldn't want SACD,” he adds

At the same time, Songlines isn’t neglecting the non-audiophile market or the possibilities of the Internet. All of its CDs are playable on non-super-audiophile systems; Songlines discs can be bought as digital downloads; and the label’s Website offers interviews with the artists that provide more detail than in the CD booklets.

Songlines is financed by Reif’s inheritance. Someone whose background is in English literature and film, he gained an appreciation for what he calls “left-of-centre jazz” during graduate studies in Toronto and California. Initially he planned to document Vancouver jazz through live concert recordings. “But soon, I realized that if I was going to get Vancouver music to a broader, international audience I would have a better chance if I diversified a bit.”

Over the years, Songlines’ first CD by local clarinetist François Houle has been joined by CDs recorded in and featuring musicians from Seattle (Babkas), New York (trumpeter Dave Douglas’ Tiny Bell Trio), Paris (pianist Benoît Delbecq) and Amsterdam (Aros). “Challenging but accessible" was the catchphrase I used then,” says Reif. “I think it still applies.”

Today he adds, “I look for music that has a balance between improvisational and compositional elements, though perhaps I've moved more towards the compositional, because improv can be very hit-and-miss. I like music that has a strong sense of form and that can’t be ‘used up’ in one or two listenings. The musicians and I put a lot of thought into making each record work as an overall experience.”

Songlines’ three newest CDs do just that. Saxophonist Patrick Zimmerli’s Phoenix leans towards ambient/modern classical music; drummer Dylan van der Schyff’s The Definition of a Toy towards avant jazz; and Lingua Franca, with saxophonist Peter Epstein, guitarist Brad Shepik and drummer Matt Kilmer towards jazz mixed with World music.

The three sessions use different levels of technology. Phoenix for example went through five different digital editing, mixing and mastering stages; Lingua Franca was recorded 16-track analog and mixed in analogue to DSD; while The Definition of a Toy was recorded to eight-track DSD and mixed in analogue back to DSD. “I always prefer to be in the studio, to offer another set of ears, help the artists get what they want musically and help the engineer get the best possible sound,” states Reif.

The label’s musical leanings are even broader. Releases include pure World music (Amir Koushkani’s Quest), avant-folk (Poor Boy: Songs of Nick Drake), avant-improv-electronics (Hilmar Jensson’s Tyft), and jazz and spoken word (Jerry Granelli’s Sandhills Reunion). “The typical Songlines release probably ‘leans’ in more than one direction, or if it’s incontrovertibly jazz, it includes a lot of variety,” suggests Reif. “Maybe I get bored easily, or maybe I just like to shake things up.”

As for the future, among the six CDs Songlines tries to releases each year will be a live trio session with local pianist Chris Gestrin, New York guitarist Ben Monder and van der Schyff; Seattle pianist Wayne Horvitz recorded with cellist Peggy Lee, trumpeter Ron Miles and bassoonist Sara Schoenbeck; a New music/World music record, featuring Vancouver composer and piper Michael O’Neill’s compositions involving up to four bagpipe lines and percussion; and – in a rare foray into Eastern Canada – a CD led by Toronto reedist Quinsin Nachoff. This classical-jazz hybrid features Americans, bassist Mark Helias, drummer Jim Black and a string quartet.

With Songlines essentially a one-man operation, Reif admits “there’s plenty to keep me busy for the future”.

— Ken Waxman