Red Toucan

Label Spotlight
By Ken Waxman

Like its aviary namesake, Montreal-based Red Toucan is rare bird in the recording industry. Dedicated to releasing what label owner Michel Passaretti calls “music with strong improvisational content”; the Canadian imprint operates in a unique fashion. Although founded in 1994 as an outlet for local productions, most of Red Toucan’s 36 releases so far have featured European improvisers.

Today the label accepts for release only already recorded projects no matter where they originate. What’s distinctive about this arrangement is that no matter the size of the ensemble or the fame of the performers – and Red Toucan’s roster includes discs by reedists John Butcher, Frank Gratkowski and François Houle, bassist Joëlle Léandre and bassist/composer Simon H. Fell among others – the label’s CDs are usually the first ones recorded by a particular group.

With e-mail and the internet, being located in Montreal is no detriment to doing business, Passaretti explains. “It’s a nice place to live but as for publishing creative music, it’s as bad as any other place in the world,” he jokes. “Red Toucan is now pretty well known among musicians and they come to me with their projects. Curiously, I get very few from Canadian or even Québécois improvisers, but if I got one from a Canadian artist that I wanted to publish at that moment, I certainly would.”

Like most other recording business concerns the reason for Red Toucan’s policies stem from one issue: money. “It’s more and more difficult to survive,” Passaretti reports. “I sell fewer and fewer CDs. That’s why I now have to ask musicians for a financial involvement, meaning that they have to buy a certain number of copies of their own CDs.” This realistic arrangement deters very few however. Despite having only the time and money to release about three CDs annually, Passaretti never has to solicit projects since demos and proposals arrive nearly daily. “Nationality is never an issue when I decide to publish something,” he declares, “though for every one I pick, I have to turn down several very good ones. That’s the part of the job I don’t like.”

However his judgment calls haven’t discouraged internationally known players such as Germany’s Gratkowski or France’s Léandre, whose work also appears on other labels, to release CDs on Red Toucan; Gratkowski has put out five Red Toucan CDs and Léandre seven. As many other projects on the label, the Berlin-based saxophonist came to Passaretti out of the blue with a proposal via e-mail, But the Léandre story is a bit more complicated and goes back to the label’s beginnings.

Initially Passaretti, who is sales manager for an industrial plastics distributor, and his ex-partner, started the label to give more exposure to Canadian improvisers. In fact, six of Red Toucan’s first eight releases featured Canadian players such as Houle and cellist Peggy Lee. Then Houle, with two CDs on the label, wanted his performance at the Vancouver Jazz Festival with Léandre and German pianist Georg Graewe to be his next. “But a real catastrophe happened,” recalls Passaretti. “The sound engineer’s house and studio was destroyed by fire and the poor guy lost everything, including the tapes of the trio.” Shortly afterwards however the bassist invited the others to a Paris festival and that session became Joëlle Léandre/François Houle/Georg Graewe Live@Banlieues Bleues, Red Toucan’s sixth release. “That was my first encounter with Ms. Contrabass and since then she must have offered me 568 projects out of which I was honoured to publish seven so far,” Passaretti reports.

“I first met Michel when I was touring Canada with Carlos Zingaro and Rudiger Carl in the Canvas Trio. I had just recorded my solo bass disc No Comment which he put out as a CD and it’s still in print," Paris-based Léandre explains. “To me, dealing with a Quebecois is like dealing with a cousin, they’re close to French people. Michael is sincere in his vision and Red Toucan’s production values are precise. In fact, I just proposed a new duo disc to him with me and Mat Maneri and I’m waiting to see what he thinks about it.”

When the initial Red Toucan partnership dissolved in 1998, Passaretti put out sessions by pianist Michael Jerfry Stevens and saxophonist Dave Liebman on the Cactus imprint, but within a year reactivated the already established Red Toucan name with C'est ça, Léandre’s and Houle’s CD with guitarist Hasse Poulsen. Today the only other person involved is Marcel Boucher who does all of Red Toucan’s distinctive artwork.

Looking back on the label’s 17-year history, Passaretti notes that outside of usually being the band’s first project, there is no typical Red Toucan session, considering it has released discs by ensembles ranging from duos, including saxophonist Butcher and drummer Gerry Hemingway’s Shooters and Bowlers; to large orchestras such as composer/conductor Laura Andel’s SomnanbulisT. Best sellers remain Houle’s duo with pianist Marilyn Crispell, Any Terrain Tumultuous and Léandre’s solo disc, No Comment, both of which have been reissued when the initial pressings sold out.

“I was approached by Michel Passaretti in the early 1990s who was very interested in my work, especially in my collaborations with European musicians,” remembers Houle from Vancouver. “Being a Quebecois musician living in the West Red Toucan wanted to support my music since as I provided a subtle aesthetic nuance to what was going on in the Montreal musique actuelle scene. As a new label it also made sense for Red Toucan to present international artists to heighten its profile, and thanks to that interest I was able to release projects with Joëlle Léandre, Georg Graewe, Marilyn Crispell and Hasse Poulsen, in addition to my own Vancouver projects. I hope to continue this relationship with Red Toucan as it continues to support creative musicians and to constantly and courageously release challenging and exciting material.”

While some of the label’s discs are available for download through outlets such as iTunes and the Jazz Loft, Passaretti has no plans to concentrate on that distribution route. He’s more concerned with putting out new CDs. The next release should be a session featuring a Hungarian-German quartet headed by Gratkowski and violinist Szilàrd Mezei, whose earlier Red Toucan disc, Nad/Reed, features his large ensemble. Another will be by an international quartet headed by German drummer Joe Hertenstein. “And then, Joëlle will turn 60 this year and I’m sure she’ll have a project to propose for the occasion,” he notes.

When Passaretti first decided that his label was going to focus on free jazz, a friend he told about his decision “looked at me and said ‘Man, you’re a rare bird’,” he recalls. “So I figured this label must be named after a rare bird, and after going through hundreds of silly names, found this one. The bird is rare, colorful … and it doesn’t sing.”

On the evidence of his impressive catalogue however, you can’t say the same about the music on Red Toucan’s CDs.

— For New York City Jazz Record April 2011