Label Spotlight

Red Piano Records
By Ken Waxman

When I was a kid and got interested in jazz, my first deep passion was with vocalists. This interest has continued to this day,” explains Brooklyn-based pianist Frank Carlberg. “Singing also doesn’t go through a ‘middle-man’ such as an instrument which exists to translate your imagination/interior into sound. So often in instrumental studies we talk about trying to make our instrument sing.”

That statement goes a long way towards explaining why Red Piano Records (RPR), the label which Carlberg helps direct as partner in an artist-run cooperative, has released so many vocal-oriented CDs since its founding in 2008. At the same time the majority of these discs are quite different than those involved with the expected songbook repertoire. Pianist Ran Blake and singer Christine Correa for instance have recorded two CDs saluting the work of singer Abbey Lincoln; while Correa, is often called upon to interpret Carlberg’s musical settings of modern American poetry.

“When I first arrived in the US I thought that the only American culture of any interest consisted of jazz and film,” explains the pianist, who was born and raised in Helsinki. “Soon enough I discovered many other aspects of American culture, not least of them 20th century American poets. These writers, starting with Pound, Zukofsky, Williams etc., wrote in a distinctly American way. Eventually I started to create settings for some of these poems. After meeting Christine Correa I had in her a beautiful and powerful voice willing and able to sing the lines that I wrote. By now the work with poets has continued for about 20 years and I’ve written almost 200 settings to mostly 20th and 21st century American poets. Combining poetry and music is an old tradition that for some reason, until fairly recently, was somewhat underutilized in jazz. Plus the work of Steve Lacy has been a major inspiration. Steve’s body of work incorporating poetry is staggering and masterful. Other influences are the collaborations between Abbey Lincoln and Max Roach that yielded powerful music that was socially relevant.”

Correa expands on this: “The importance of delivering the words of a poem requires a certain sound and clear diction. Poems evoke certain feelings, ideas, moods, so I think it’s important to portray that musically. One expresses those things in speech and to me singing is an extension of one’s speaking voice. One articulates words and phrases or changes the timbre of one’s voice depending on how one wants it to come across.” Working in a song-based duo with Blake on the other hand, calls for different strategies: “the music has many harmonic and rhythmic surprises, so it’s best to be open and sing whatever feels natural at that time. It’s impossible to plan ahead. You just go more by instinct.”

Such obtuse goals may appear esoteric for many imprints, yet Carlberg, who also teaches in the Jazz Studies department of the New England Conservatory, adds that RPR’s birth was as much for economic as artistic concerns. The pianist who recorded for about a dozen years pre-RPR began noticing that “as CDs became less of a viable business existing labels were able to offer fewer benefits such as paying the musicians, covering the costs of production, manufacturing, advertising and publicity. You also sometimes have to wait a long time to have projects released,” he recalls. “Being actively involved in a label such as RPR though you can release recordings whenever you want.” RPR’s other partners are composer Nicholas Urie and trumpeter John Carlson.

Although the label’s name came from a poem by Finnish-American poet Anselm Holloth, not every CD includes a piano or a voice, plus other musicians besides the partners record for it. Artists whose projects are compatible with RPR’s aims contribute to the production costs, but retrain rights to their works “We would love to release many more CDs,” declares Carlberg. “I believe that artists such as [pianist] Vardan Ovsepian and [saxophonist] John O’Gallagher for instance, are remarkable talents that are largely unknown by the public/press or under-represented in this age ruled by image, catch-phrases, agents and publicists.”

Blake who has been on disc since he and singer Jeanne Lee cut the Newest Sound Around for RCA in 1962 says he’s recorded three discs for RPR because “there’s a comradeship and sharing back-and-forth. Some companies try to put you in a box and make demands, others just let you do what you want. Frank has faith in the artists, he’s hands-on, but you’re part of the production team.

“A vocalist is my favorite type of person to record with,” he continues. The salute(s) to Abbey Lincoln came about after he had spent “50 years watching her, worshipping her and listening to her music.” Since Correa was initially stunned and inspired by the Lincoln discs Blake played for her after she came from Mumbai to study in the US, she was the perfect person with whom to record the tributes, he adds. Correa is “a taste of tomorrow. I love the way she bends pitches, her rhythmic attack, her drama, the way she uses silences.”

Correa, who has also recorded for many labels, says that RPR “has a strong identity of releasing artistically satisfying CDs with some of the more interesting musicians of our time. There are absolutely no impositions put on the music and so every recording comes across as being genuine and unique.” Carlberg, she adds “is sensitive enough to never interfere in one’s music because he clearly trusts the artistic merit of that individual. For every RPR project I’ve been involved in, Frank has spent countless painstaking hours working with the engineer to find the right sound to end up with the best possible outcome.”

Right now these outcomes are only sold as CD, although Carlberg does say that vinyl is worth considering. Also while available as downloads through vendors such as iTunes and CDBaby, RPR avoids free sites and streaming services. “I don’t see what’s gained from having stuff on those sites/services. Exposure, they would like to make you think. Bullshit I say! CDs or downloads really aren’t that expensive. If we’re willing to pay $5 for a white chocolate mocha latte, why can’t we pay $9.99 for an album download, 99 cents for a track or $13 for a hard copy of some great music?”

Record business uncertainties aside, RPR is committed to releasing many more discs this year. Guitarist Joe Morris and pianist Leo Genovese will lead their own sessions, while there will be more Carlsberg song/poetry projects. As he notes “There’s something universal and direct about the human voice. There’s hardly a culture that doesn’t have singing and many cultures and genres are defined to a great extent by a great voice … think Edith Piaf, Amália Rodrigues, Mercedes Sosa, Elis Regina Lata Mangeshkar, Mahalia Jackson, Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder etc.”

Or Christine Correa and RPR.

—For The New York City Jazz Record February 2015