February 6, 2016
By Ken Waxman
Western movies may have the Magnificent Seven, gunfighters who banded together to protect beleaguered villagers, but jazz has its own Magnificent Seven, another group of freelancers, this time musicians, who banded together to protect and promote an equally beleaguered entity: improvised music. This seven-person collective is the guiding force behind Copenhagen’s Barefoot records. After a decade of existence and more than 50 well-received releases the label will be celebrating its 10th anniversary in May with a birthday bash in the Danish capital.
“We started out as a small group of students from the academy of music in Esbjerg, Denmark, releasing each other’s music,” recalls label spokesperson, Norwegian-born drummer Håkon Berre, who is featured on 21 Barefoot releases. Inspired by the D-I-Y ethos of the slightly older ILK label, “we wanted to create a similar solution with our network,” he adds. “In this way, we could be in control of the music, own it and keep the sales to ourselves”. The label’s first release was supposed to be a one-off by the Barefoot Trio consisting of Norwegian pianist Ole Jonas Storli, Danish bassist Jesper Dyhre Nielsen and Berre. Distribution was limited to one now-defunct Copenhagen record store. Storli and Berre had financed the initial release, but once they saw the potential of having their own imprint, they invited other friends to join the venture and kept the Barefoot name.
With collective members from all Scandinavian countries as well as Estonia and Poland, the initial releases included pop and folk-oriented sessions. But as some participants left to take up other jobs and were replaced by others, the label’s focus shifted to avant garde and experimental jazz. Right now, beside Berre, the member are Estonian saxophonist Maria Faust, Danish pianists Morten Pedersen and Jeppe Zeeberg and Polish trumpeter Tomasz Dabrowski, all in Copenhagen; Danish drummer Kasper Tom Christiansen, who lives in Århus; and Berlin-based, Danish bassist Adam Pultz Melbye. A half-dozen others have been part of the collective over the years and can return if they wish.
Set up as “voluntary association” under Danish law, each member pays yearly membership fees as well as funding his or her own projects. “Expenses regarding recording, mixing, pressing, etc. are on the member’s shoulders,” notes Berre. “When we have common activities, such as label nights or organizing a concert series, we apply funds on behalf of the label and evenly share the outcome. Right now 85% of sales through our distributors are paid directly to the artists and 15% is kept for the label manager’s salary.” Yulia Kulgavchuk, Barefoot’s label manager, was hired on a part-time basis in autumn of 2014, and handles distribution, sales and accounting. However the seven still help out with grant applications and media relations. “Earlier we also had to share the workload of distribution, sales and accountancy,” explains Berre. “But this was extremely hard to share equally, so we ended up hiring a label manager.”
Zeeberg, who joined the collective in 2012, has recorded seven Barefoot albums under his own name and with the bands Horse Orchestra, Bird Alert, and Dødens Garderobe. “I don't have any specific tasks attached to me per se, but often I am in charge of the graphic stuff like concert posters,” he relates. “If a Barefoot member wants to release an album, all decisions are up to him or her. As a collective we help each other through the boring tasks like promoting the albums, but ultimately you’re the only one in charge of your own releases.”
The biggest challenge, admits Berre, was finding proper distribution. But now the label is available in eight different countries. When it comes to recordings though, one member of the collective must still be on every session. “We never release something if it’s not connected to one of the members of the collective,” confirms Berre. “You can release a project either as a band leader or as a sideman, as long as at least one Barefoot member is playing on the record.” Changing membership means that discs with ex-members remain in the catalogue. Beach Party for instance is a duo with drummer Han Bennink and ex-member guitarist Jaak Sooäär, while GNOM’s eponymous disc features another former member, tubaist Kristian Tangvik. “If an ‘outsider’ wants to record for Barefoot, he or she must apply for membership in the collective,” Berre elaborates. “If there are applications, we always discuss these at meetings. We then decide if we want to include this musician in the collective, or not. It depends on the quality of the music of course, and if the person applying is ready for voluntary work, collective thinking, etc.”
Tom, who joined the collective in 2012, notes that: “My first Barefoot release was Grøn a co-leader thing with Pultz Melbye. And altogether I’ve released five records with four different groups. The latest is Kasper Tom 5’s second release I do admire things that are only what they are.” Members are also free to record for other labels. Tom for examples has done CDs for WhyPlayJazz and ForTune Records. “In Barefoot you have to do everything yourself, from planning the recording to finding the funds to release it,” he reports. “For the other labels I just have to maybe find a place to record and they take care of the rest.”
But besides the extra work, Barefoot provides other advantages, he asserts. “Being part of a well organized, and might I add, very cool, label, helps me get exposure through distribution, through Barefoot’s other members and through the events we organize.” Adds Zeeberg: “I haven’t recorded my own music for other labels. I was and, still am, quite young when I joined. But being a member has made a lot of things easy for me, especially regarding releasing music. It has made me perhaps also more visible to the public. As an experimental composer/musician you need all the exposure you can get.”
As part of its democratic process, each Barefoot members decides on which medium his or her release will appear, with session so far on CD, LP, digital download, cassette tape and even post cards. Zeeberg’s and Rune Lohse’s Music Made in One Day featured download codes printed on ordinary postcards. “Some future releases are planned on 3D-printed sculptures,” reveals Berre. Most physical sales are at concerts or for domestic distribution, whereas international sales are largely digital. “These two go nicely hand in hand,” he asserts.
Besides the 10th anniversary party, new discs are planned for 2016. They include Flamingo and Jitter two trios featuring Pultz Melbye; a Dabrowski solo set; a duo with Tom and clarinetist Rudi Mahall; a Pedersen quintet date; and Berre collaborating with non-members trumpeter Susana Santos Silva, pianist Christine Wodrascka and bassist Christian Meaas Svendsen.
Barefoot may not be a major imprint, but the cooperative ethos and group identity is working perfectly for its members. As Berre notes: “With the attention paid to Barefoot everyone benefits, and benefits much more than having seven artists releasing discs by themselves.”
—For The New York City Jazz Record February 2016