Label Spotlight

Potlatch Records
By Ken Waxman

Performing music’s loss is recorded music’s gain since Paris-based Jacques Oger abandoned his gig as a saxophonist with the free music trio Axolotl in the mid-1980s. Turning to market research, communication and translations, by 1997 he had saved enough to found Potlatch which to date has released 35 high-quality CDs. Oger spent 10 years with Axolotl, during which the band recorded two LPs and gigged frequently. He stopped playing, he admits “because I thought I was not creative enough to keep on in that area of music.” He was creative enough though when he translated his love for experimental music into a record label.

“My kids were older, so I had more time left to do something else,” Oger adds, describing the birth of Potlatch, which takes its name from the wealth redistribution system practiced by North American Indians. “I thought that a label was needed to promote musicians that I enjoyed and who weren’t known enough. Above all, there was the Internet starting and growing very fast. Suddenly it was very easy to have contacts with musicians, distributors and consumers all over the world via mailing lists, mail order and websites.” Another a plus was his experience as an itinerant musician. Asked how he corralled well known musicians such as Evan Parker and Joëlle Léandre to record for Potlatch, Oger replies: “I knew them personally. I explained that they could rely on me because I knew how to address the ‘market’; I had contacts with distributors, I knew journalists and reviewers in France and abroad.”

Early on output was divided between sessions specifically created for Potlatch and previously recorded material. As Potlatch’s sole owner and only employee, Oger uses different sound engineers and artists/designers on a project basis. “We often recorded at Les Instants Chavirés the main venue for improvised music in Paris, or sometimes at great festivals such as Meteo in Mulhouse.” One early CD, Outcome by Derek Bailey and Lacy stands out because it was recorded 16 years before it was released. Engineer/computer musician Jean-Marc Foussat, who recorded the majority of Potlatch’s early CDs, had the master on hand. “It made sense because Steve Lacy was living in Paris. Since I had attended his master class, I knew him,” remembers Oger. “Afterwards, I decided to give up on older material. I have to release material focused on the present. Music is changing, so labels must reflect new tendencies and trends.”

That has certainly happened as Potlatch has become one of the primary outlets for reductionist sounds. “There was a turning point with a new generation of musicians with other ideas of how to play. From 2002 on, my choices were orientated towards realms focusing on more spacious forms of music with new textures, slower pace, the presence of silence, a preference for collective sound rather than chatty ping-pong playing based on energy and spontaneity.”

Since Oger can’t afford to put out more than two or three CDs each year, selecting the right musicians and sessions to release is “the main job when you run a label, maybe the only one,” he asserts. “It’s hard even when you believe that you have some experience. I need to know what’s happening everywhere. I attend a lot of concerts; I listen to a lot of recordings. When I’m convinced by the quality of a musician or group of musicians, I ask if we can do something together. It can be a live recording, and we can make several before choosing the best, or it can be studio sessions.”

One player who benefitted from this due diligence is tenor saxophonist Bertrand Denzler, who has had four CDs on the label: two with Trio Sowari; another with a saxophone quartet; and a solo saxophone disc.

“In the late ‘90s and early ‘00s, other labels published my CDs. Working with them was a good experience, so I wasn’t thinking about recording for Potlatch,” he recalls. “I saw Jacques at many concerts though and we had interesting discussions about music. Then in 2004 Trio Sowari had its first concerts in France plus a two-day studio residency. Jacques came to one of those concerts in a tiny studio and enjoyed our music. He told me he would be interested in publishing a recording. I told him I would send him something. He immediately decided to release it.

“Two years later, Trio Sowari did a new CD and I asked Jacques to publish it. But he needs time before he can sell enough copies to finance the next one. Two years later, he put it out. With Propagations, Jacques heard our saxophone quartet in concert, but after we recorded, either we or he thought the results weren’t good enough until we finally came up with something in 2007. I recorded the solo CD one day in Paris and gave it to Jacques before other labels. I didn't expect him to release it. But he liked it enough to put it out.

“Jacques listens to the recording several times, until he knows exactly what he thinks. If he thinks something could be done to improve the disc, like editing and/or mastering or changing the order of the pieces, he asks the musicians what they think. But he respects the musicians’ choice. He does the same with the title of the CD and the graphic design.”

Denzler’s story is typical. Oger says he frequently receives unsolicited proposals, but rarely agrees to these sessions. He supports musicians obsessed with detail though. “Originality and quality are often hidden in very small details”, he avers. “Listen to the first minutes of Denzler’s Tenor. There are some amazing tiny things only detectable with headphones.” Finally he admits: “As a former musician, I give priority to my beloved instrument the saxophone.”

Christine Abdelnour is an alto saxophonist who benefitted from this when Potlatch released Ichnites featuring her duo with percussionist Pascal Battus. Asked why she recorded for Potlatch, Abdelnour, who has put out CDs with other companies, says: “Because it's a great label. The process was all about exchanging ideas. Jacques paid for the recording session and then we had a listening session where he said what he liked or didn’t. Then Pascal did the mixing. For the cover, Jacques brought our idea to his graphic designer who proposed several choices then Pascal and I decided on the titles. Finally he gave us 20 copies that we could sell at concerts.”

Declaring that “in our area of music, selling 500 copies today worldwide is great”, after Oger pays for pressing, printing and promotion, compensation for musicians varies. “Of course I always give them a good bunch of CDs they can sell at their concerts,” he declares. Furthermore, although the entire stock of discs such as The Contest of Pleasures has sold out, he admits that it’s too expensive to press new copies.

What he won’t do is press Potlatch LPs. “Never”, he insists. “LPs are too expensive to make and too hard to ship.” He’s also unsure about downloads. “Musicians can sell their music by download to everyone on the planet. If they can reach a large audience and earn some money, it’s great. But if a musician isn’t well known, he needs credibility and a label can bring him this needed credibility. It worked that way when I released [soprano saxophonist] Stéphane Rives’ solo CD Fibres; he gained recognition. Would it be possible if it was only sold by download? I’m not sure. [Percussionist] Lê Quan Ninh told me that over the past two years he only sold six copies of an out-of-print album on iTunes – and he’s well-known. For the near future I hope Potlatch can keep on bringing this credibility to musicians facing new challenges who deserve wider recognition.”

—For New York City Jazz Record June 2012