Label Spotlight

Umlaut
By Ken Waxman

For Swedes the umlaut or two dots over common vowels in Swedish transforms one sound into another. When Swedish-born, Berlin-based bassist Joel Grip explained that to others while studying in Baltimore, the transformative concept appealed to him so much that when he founded a record label he decided to adopt Umlaut as its name. Since 2004, Umlaut, now a musical collective with members in Sweden, Germany and France, has released 25 productions. The discs feature a cross section of young improvisers, including Grip, trumpeters Axel Dörner and Niklas Barnö, saxophonist Pierre-Antoine Badaroux and pianist Alexander Zethson plus more established musicians such as drummer Sven-Åke Johansson. “The research and questioning of improvisation and composition play an important role for Umlaut. Our improvisations become composed memory when heard, and our compositions are stated improvised memories,” says Grip.

Initially, Grip, who describes himself as Umlaut’s “founding father” started the label and began producing concerts “as soon as I realized that no concerts or CD productions would come to me sitting at home waiting for the phone to ring.” Until around 2008 he administered Umlaut by himself, while organizing tours and festivals. “Umlaut evolved from being a one-man job to a collective one when the one-man – me – realized that it was too much job for one man, especially when this one man is foremost a musician”, he notes. Luckily, by that time he had met other similarly committed musicians in Paris including Badaroux and pianist Eve Risser; and saxophonist Pierre Borel in Berlin, who joined forces with him and Sweden’s Barnö. Today 11musicians are involved on a regular basis.

“Each entity works independently on artistic and creative issues,” he elaborates. “We coordinate and share the administrative workload, such as distribution, press/media contacts, on-line sales, website, etc. For example: when a record is released in Sweden, the collectives in France and Germany make sure it’s covered in the media and distributed in their territories and vice versa. The responsibilities among us are constantly changing. One day you’re the head producer, the next day you’re cleaning the toilet at the concert.”

Despite the number of people involved, everyone has the same power and decisions are made on democratic principles. It’s then up to the producer of the decided-on project to procure funds. Sometimes the money comes from musicians’ own pocket or from concert or CD sales; just as frequently some sort of state association, such as the Swedish National Council of Cultural affairs, helps. About 1,000 CDs are pressed, and at this point Corpulent’s Wolfwalk and Donkey Monkey’s Quature have already sold out. Any profits made are shared among the participants.

Dörner, featured on two Umalut CDs, became involved when after playing a Paris concert, he recorded a date with the Peeping Tom band. “What I like about the experience was that everything was on a high professional and technical level and realized in a very efficient way,” he recalls. “The record came out shortly after it was recorded, and it sounded good – we also communicated about the mix – and it had a very tasteful cover and design. Joel and the other members do a good job organizing small festivals around the label and I think this is very clever. If as a label you organize a festival and you later want to release music from the concerts, you already have publicity from the festival and just have costs of the CD cover and pressing.”

Explains Grip: “One big part of Umlaut’s activity is getting live music heard. In both Berlin and Paris we organize regular concert series. In Sweden it’s more irregular. Since we’re all active musicians we’re constantly looking for new possibilities. I’ve been organizing tours, festivals, and concerts for Umlaut musicians as well as non-affiliated artists during the last 10 years. I especially like to take improvised music to places where it’s not usually heard.”

With this emphasis on in-person merchandizing, although some Umlaut discs are available for download, those sales don’t contribute much to the bottom line. Any LPs are also in that format purely for artistic reasons. “I wanted to make a completely analog recording to get as close as possible to the natural sound of the bass,” explains Grip about Pickelhaube, his solo LP. “Also, I like the restrictions applied on an analog recording; there are time limits; there’s an end to it. Sometimes in the digital world, the feeling of ‘no-end’ reduces creativity.”

Some of Umlaut’s artists are familiar with LPs, having begun playing when the 12-inch format was the only medium. Why does Grip figure established figures want Umlaut releases? “This collaboration with the older guys took shape out of a mutual interest in learning from each other and playing together. What makes them great is that they continuously want to develop themselves and their music. I don’t think they see us as young and un-established, just as we don’t see them as old and established. We simply like each other’s way of working and want to create something together. I think they will continue to, put out discs on Umlaut because of a shared desire to develop experiment and explore live and recorded music.”

Johansson, whose recording history goes back to 1967’s For Adolphe Sax concurs. “It seems that most of my preferences and my aesthetics correspond to those of a lot of the younger players,” he notes “I’ve been a friend of Joel for some time and we play in different groups together. He’s interested in new recorded music as well as historically important ones and we plan to bring out more new and historical music together, such as my cooperation with Bengt Nordström.”

In fact Umlaut’s most spectacular future release will be a box set of discs from 1970, 1977 and 1982 by Swedish alto saxophonist/producer Bengt ‘Frippe’ Nordström with pianist Alexander von Schlippenbach and Johansson. Says Grip: “Many American free jazz fans don’t know Nordström’s great work, which among other things resulted in Albert Ayler’s first released recording. ‘Frippe’ became an underground figure, but always showed up at concerts with his horn like Ayler, pushing music to its outer limits – or to its most inner howl.”

That sort of commitment can be linked to the free-music idealism of Umalut as well. “Umlaut isn’t owned by anyone but itself and the music it creates,” adds Grip. “Umlaut is a voice by itself, but it listens and reacts to the voices of the collective’s members.”

—For The New York City Jazz Record February 2013