Label Spotlight

MPS (Edel: Kultur)
By Ken Waxman

Christian Kellersmann is now facing one of the most demanding yet satisfying challenges of his quarter-century career in the recording business. As director of Content and Creative for Berlin-based Edel: Kultur since late 2014, it’s his task to decide which items in the legendary MPS catalogue will be reissued. Besides sessions available on LP, analog tape and CD, twice each month two to five catalogue items are made available in digital form, exclusively on iTunes for a two month period, then on all download platforms. “This will be the first time in the history of the label that the entire jazz catalogue will be available in digital form,” he explains. “These timeless chapters in jazz will also be accompanied by online documentation.”

MPS (Musik Produktion Schwarzwald [Black Forest]) records was the label founded by industrialist/audio engineer Hans Georg Brunner-Schwer (1927-2004) in the ‘60s initially to record pianists, most prominently Oscar Peterson, in high-quality sound. By the time Brunner-Schwer sold the label in 1983, among its 430 or so discs were ones recorded in New York and Berlin as well as at Brunner-Schwer’s famous Black Forest studios. Eclectic, the catalogue features big band and small group recordings by the likes of as Jim Hall, Count Basie, the Singers Unlimited, Jean-Luc Ponty, Wolfgang Dauner, Rolf Kühn and Albert Mangelsdorff. Besides classic jazz titles, artists like Tony Scott and John Handy put out discs experimented with what later would be dubbed world music.

Brunner-Schwer initially sold MPS’ rights and masters to Polygram/Universal, with Hamburg-based Edel AG taking ownership in early 2014. Kellersmann formerly worked for Polygram/Universal, leaving as managing director Classics and Jazz. In that position, besides signing artists such as Till Brönner and Barbara Dennerlein, he initiated popular CD reissue programs. One was dubbed “Mojo Club presents Dance floor Jazz”; then there was a classical club-series called the “Yellow Lounge”. During that time he met and worked with Brunner-Schwer and Gigi Campi, who produced many Kenny Clarke/Francy Boland Big Band LPs. “Although they were both much older than me we were like were soul brothers,” Kellersmann recalls.

What this background means is that in his tenure at Edel: Kultur, Kellersmann is a veteran dealing with familiar music. However his marketing philosophy is different from that of the label’s original owners. “I learned a lot reintroducing jazz to a new audience in the beginning of the ‘90s,” he states. “My ambition was, and still is, to reach a new, younger audience. With MPS the challenge is still valid: reaching the core audience as well as young, new consumers.” He continues: “Universal Music was only focusing on the top titles. In the meantime many people have been waiting to get access to all the music. We will release according to our resources and based on the quality of artists and productions. Each release should be something very special.”

The MPS reissue program begin in May 2014 with an Oscar Peterson boxed set available on CD, vinyl and digitally. At this point about 250-odd sessions have been reissued as digital downloads with the entire catalogue projected to be available sometime in 2017. So far, the most popular sessions have been dates featuring piano masters Oscar Peterson and George Shearing and surprisingly enough what Kellersmann calls “hidden champs”, pianist Monty Alexander and vibist Dave Pike.

Before a title is made available the label consults with experts, including customers, record collectors and distributors. “MPS was always a very open-minded label. It was never restricted to any specific genre,” Kellersmann explains. “Brunner-Schwer was a music-lover without limitations, except bad quality. Jazz was the main genre on MPS but you also find classical Music, pop, schlager, bossa nova, Indian music etc. We want to keep and follow this tradition for music and quality.”

As it stands now the majority of digital-reissues consist of extant LPs without additional material. “In the cases where we find bonus-tracks which are good we will add then to the session,” notes Kellersmann. “But the best music was released already … at least according to Brunner-Schwer.” So far the only discovery has been tracks by Peterson that weren’t part of his original MPS LPs but now are included in the box set, labelled Lost Tapes 1 and Lost Tapes 2. “On the last you can hear Oscar Peterson sing,” reveals Kellersmann.

Part of the reason Edel: Kultur hasn’t yet been able to discover many bonus tracks is how the company first received the tapes. “We got the original audio tapes from Universal Music in packing cases, some with good documentations, but mostly without graphic material,” he remembers. “We had our own research team who searched for liner notes and the original artwork. But our focus became for the physical releases to have the correct version of all artwork.” Digital downloads, which are 24-bit-transfers from the original master tapes, include scans of the original covers plus bare bones label copy in .pdf form. Kellersmann has been in touch with a few living musicians whose LPs have been included in the reissue program such as pianists Alexander and Dauner and clarinetist Kühn. All say they’re impressed and gratified by the program.

With MPS also emphasizing new material – albums by singer Malia and a Gilles Peterson-compilation will soon be available – the likelihood is that few if any of the downloads will be transmogrified into physical product, and then probably as LPs rather than CDs, he declares. “But of course if we see that some of the nuggets have never been released on CD, the chances are high for releasing CD versions,” Kellersmann confirms.

Meanwhile the next group of digital downloads scheduled for early 2016 will include sessions by pianists Martial Solal and Eugen Cicero, bandleader/pianist George Gruntz, guitarist and Dave Pike associate Volker Kriegel and one from Cecil Taylor.

—For The New York City Jazz Record January 2016