September 10, 2011
By Ken Waxman
“There was never a master plan, except to release music I enjoy and promote musicians I want to help”, says Bay area drummer Gino Robair when asked why he started Rastascan records in the early 1980s and has kept it going ever since.
Over the years the California imprint, named after the term “rasters” from television technology, has put out music on CD, LP, DVD and cassette, as downloads and even on flexi-disc, with sessions featuring artists ranging from Anthony Braxton and Evan Parker to lesser-known improvisers. “Unlike many labels that take a curatorial stance or try to ‘produce’ each record, I give the artists full control over the presentation of their work,” explains Robair. “They determine the look of the graphics, the order and choice of the music, the titles of the album and pieces. That’s one of the things I’ve enjoyed most about running a label; seeing and hearing the full artistic statement that the object represents”.
Based in Redlands, Calif. in the early 1980s, Robair figured that starting a label was the only way to make the music he and his friends played available. Plus “my favorite artists had started their own labels: the Residents, Harry Partch, Charles Mingus, Carla Bley, Sun Ra,” he recalls. Lacking the funds to put out LPs, cassettes and one magazine- inserted flexi-disc were released on Rastascan. When the drummer relocated to the Bay Area in the late 1980s, he revived Rastascan with a 12-inch single featuring Robair, Braxton and guitarist Aric Rubin. “I pressed 500, but only about 125 got out; the remaining stock was accidentally destroyed by a distributor.”
Despite this setback, he pressed on with Rastascan, which to date has released 66 sessions from local and international players. Although early discs were by Californians such as reedist Randy McKean’s So Dig This Big Crux BRD 012 and the band Debris Terre Haute BRD 011, its international profile was established with Lower Lurum BRD 016 by German daxophone player Han Reichel, and still available as a download. “I enjoyed his music very much, but there wasn’t anything by him available in the U.S.,” recalls Robair. “So I wrote him asking if he’d be interested in sending me something to release. I was floored when he agreed.”
ROVA Saxophonist Jon Raskin, who has known Robair since 1986 and put out several CDs on Rastascan, notes how has the label supports a range of different sounds: “Rastasan includes works that have compositional elements as well those that range from studio manipulations and non-traditional music notation to more traditional music that has innovative improvisation. Gino supports the artist’s viewpoint and goals with his label, which is greatly appreciated when many labels follow an ideology.”
Being a label owner also allows Robair to match the format to the project based on such factors as recording quality, length of pieces, and potential audience. For example, Braxton’s Nine Compositions (DVD) 2003 BRD 060 is made up of tracks longer than a conventional CD can handle. “So rather than make a seven-CD box set that few could afford, I put it all on a DVD, which sells for a lot less and doesn’t require me to chop up the pieces between discs,” he explains. “It also allowed me to maintain high-resolution audio quality”.
In another example, The New Black’s White Album BRD 061 featuring Robair, guitarists Jeremy Drake and John Shiurba and David Rothbaum on analog synthesizer, is a double-LP, recorded direct-to-disc “because I felt that ensemble’s music would translate well to vinyl. And it gave us a chance to do a side of locked-loops, which we improvised.” Then there was the catalogue number, BRD 063, used for Robair’s opera I Norton; 1963 is the year he was born. “I’ve always admired how Saturn Records’ catalog numbers were numerologically important to Sun Ra”.
Despite Robair’s musical presence on about half of Rastascan’s releases, it’s anything but a vanity project. Such unique discs as Peter Brötzmann’s Sacred Scrape/Secret Response BRD 019 and Breaths and Heartbeats BRD 015 by the British Parker-Guy-Lytton Trio are in the catalogue. The former is notable for preserving the sound of a short-lived American trio headed by the German saxophonist; the latter because, contrary to his usual practice, saxophonist Evan Parker edited the pieces on it in a specific order. There was also a 10-year period during which none of Robair’s work appeared on the label. Then he figured “if I’m putting so much time, money, and effort into the label, I should also promote my own music”.
London based saxophonist John Butcher, who collaborated with the percussionist on New Oakland Burr BRD 051 and the recent Apophenia BRD 065, as well as releasing London and Cologne Saxophone Solos BRD 026 on Rastascan, explains his commitment: “In early 1996 I got a phone call from Bill Hsu, asking me if I wanted to play a concert in San Francisco. He also suggested I release a CD on Rastascan to coincide with the visit. I didn’t know the label, but it would pay production costs and a recording fee for me. Not being used to being paid to put out recordings, amongst other reasons, I accepted and met Gino when I played solo in San Francisco that summer. He handed me a box of London and Colognes. We got on and played together in various groupings when I went to the West Coast the next year, eventually settling down to a duo. He's great to play with and be with. He’s into music for all the right reasons, and has great energy.”
This energy includes the determination for Rastascan to continue releasing physical product even though some sessions are now available from on-line services. “I’m not anti-download: I just hate poor audio quality,” Robair explains. “We spend so much time and money recording music at as high a fidelity as we can afford, only to see it end up in a highly compressed format that someone listens to from a pinhole stuck in their ear. Imagine if the only way to experience a painting was by staring through a keyhole at a color photocopy of the original.”
However downloads remain a strategy for making out-of-print sessions available again, “since I’d rather spend the money on a new release”, he adds. Eventually as the Web’s speed and bandwidth increases, the drummer predicts that full-resolution digital audio will be distributed as easily as compressed formats are transferred today.
Until that happens, high quality Rastascan releases will be available in a variety of formats in limited editions and regular runs.
—For New York City Jazz Record September 2011