Label Spotlight:

Maya Recordings
By Ken Waxman

As much as anything else, the birth of Maya Recordings, which celebrated its 20th anniversary last year, was born from impatience. Swiss violinist Maya Homburger, who operates the boutique label with her husband, British bassist/composer Barry Guy, recalls that since at that time another label was slow in putting out Arcus, a recording by Guy and bassist Barre Phillips, they decided to do so themselves. By 2012 29 Maya CDs have been released, improvised as well as baroque music.

The two were already veteran musician when Maya was created. Zürich-born Homburger, for instance, has worked with ensembles such as Trio Virtuoso and Camerata Kilkenny; while London-born Guy is part of many free jazz aggregations and is the founder/artistic director of the London Jazz Composers Orchestra (LCJO). Maya was envisioned as a different sort of imprint, Homburger recalls. “We wanted to create a label where music, cover art and writing were all related and on the highest level. We wanted to have control over the look as well as the sound.”

As examples she points to Fizzles, Guy’s solo session, which not only benefitted from great care being taken with the sound recorded in a Swiss church, but was coupled with informative text f plus what she calls “an amazing cover painting by Fred Hellier”. More recently, The Musical Offering (J.S. Bach) by Camerata Kilkenny was the culmination of excellent recording and editing of the ensemble’s performance, a distinctive cover by Irish artist George Vaughan, text by David Ledbetter plus a specially commissioned poem by Fergal Gaynor. The label’s logo, based on a Maya Indian sculpture references both the Mayan people and Homburger.

Shortly after Arcus, Elsie Jo, a live concert by a sextet from the LJCO become the first CD specifically recorded for Maya. Since then at a rate of one to three a year, Maya has put out already recorded or newly created sessions by of baroque music plus combos featuring Guy. The bassist’s playing partners have ranged from Spanish pianist Agustí Fernández to saxophonists Parker and Swede Mats Gustafsson; while Homburger on baroque violin and in ensembles has recorded compositions by so-called classical composers and Guy. Dakryon is she, Guy and Swiss percussionist Pierre Favre interpreting work by17th Century composers H.I.F. Biber and Dario Castello. “My interpretation of Bach and Biber is very much influenced by the freedom I have experienced from and learned in the improvising scene,” Homburger explains.

Maya’s 20th anniversary celebration in September 2011 presented three days of concerts in the Swiss city of Winterthur. Among the perfumers were the Camerata; Homburger with Malcolm Proud on cembalo harpsichord; plus various trios, solos and duos featuring Guy, Parker, Gustafsson, Fernández, percussionists Lytton and Raymond Strid..

“I love the process of making a record, a real album; not just the iTunes adopted ‘one-track sensation’ bullshit,” affirms Gustafsson. “There’s recording the music properly, mixing, mastering, sequencing, cover art, design, liner notes etc., as well as dealing with the post-production issues such as selling the album and marketing it in a proper way. Maya Recordings has this level of quality all over the releases. The variety and flexibility of Maya Recording is also very unique, if you ask me, because it releases top-notch free jazz, contemporary music and out-of-control, fantastic baroque music. Biber’s Mystery Sonatas, in Maya Hombuger’s version, is one of the most amazing recorded music documents of the past 30 years ... I kid you not. And, of course, Barry Guy´s Fizzles is one of the most creative solo recordings in the history of improvised music. It’s totally DNA-changing. I’m very proud to be part of this, and that’s why I choose to work with them … as long as they want to work with me.”

Releasing CDs from two genres of music has never been a problem, Homburger affirms. “The mixture mirrors our touring and concerts. So everybody appreciates the label for exactly this. We know well in advance what we love, like Bach, Biber and the Parker/Guy/Lytton or the Tarfala trio, so there is never a shortage of projects for the label. We wanted to release the trios, quartets, duos and solos which were important at the time. And of course putting out discs of Bach, Bibber etc. has nothing to do with ‘vanity’.”

“Smaller labels are always nicer to work with, since you have a direct communication about all the details,” adds Gustafsson. “With larger labels too many people have opinions so it easily gets quite confused and non-creative.”

Unlike many boutique imprints Maya, based in Oberstammheim, Switzerland has a distribution agreement with Intakt, an established Swiss label. “I can’t remember when this started exactly,” Homburger admits. “Perhaps it was when we moved to Switzerland [in 2006] or partially in 2004. Now we have collaboration with Intakt on many levels, not just on distribution. One can see us as a sister company.”

Intakt and Maya are involved in many co-productions. For instance Harmos - Live at Schaffhausen, an Intakt DVD featuring the LJCO was co-produced and co-financed by Maya, as were the three CDs pianist Marilyn Crispell recorded for Intakt with Guy. “Hexentrio, the brand-new trio CD with Guy, Plimley and Swiss drummer Lucas Niggli is a co-production in every sense: organizing, editing, financing etc,” she adds.

Maya CDs are financed in different fashions. In the main, funds needed to pay for releasing live concerts of improvised music, comes from CD sales. “However studio recordings like Aurora, [with Guy, Fernández and percussionist Ramón López], and, of course, the baroque recordings are financed with the help of specific sponsors and also from our concert fees, our savings, and sometimes from sales of musical instruments,” Hombuger notes. As for the musicians themselves, the average form of compensation is mostly with CDs they can sell at gigs.

“The history of musician-owned labels is a proud one,” notes Parker who was involved with the launch of Incus in the 1970s and now runs his own psi imprint. “Barry and Maya have a specific musical agenda which relates baroque music to current music, especially improvised music. This gives their label a unique place in the overall scheme. Because they are practitioners, they’re sympathetic to the needs of their fellow musicians. Each [musician-owned] label allows the expression of an aesthetic that supports and perhaps illuminates aspects of the particular emphasis that each brings to the job.”

Switzerland, where Homburger and Guy moved to in 2006 after nine years in Ireland, has been beneficial both for the musicians and Maya Recordings. Besides giving the two more scope for concert and touring activities, the Swiss violinist states “as far as any business goes like designing, printing, distributing etc. this was a bit more complicated in Ireland. Basically loads of things in Ireland are not handled in the so-called Swiss efficient way.”

While pressing LPs for the collectors’ market remain one avenue left for Maya to explore, downloads of all the imprint’s CDs can be accessed through Proper Music, its United Kingdom distributor. Plus it isn’t standing still. Maya’s next release will be another major project: A live recording by the Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra of Guy’s composition “Schweben.”

When it comes to the administrative side, Homburger admits that sometimes the temptation to turn the whole company over to Intakt exists. “But when we receive personal reactions via e-mails from wonderful fans of the music or label in many countries or when we have very special encounters after concerts during the stage sales of our CDs, we know once again that it’s worth all the effort,” she avers.

—For New York City Jazz Record May 2012