Seattle's Origin Records was recognized last month as the 2009 Jazz Label of the Year by JazzWeek magazine, and co-founder and drummer John Bishop's trio, Scenes, performs Sunday, July 12, at Dimitriou's Jazz Alley.
The offices of the thriving, local and independent record label Origin Records are in an upper bedroom in the Seward Park home of drummer John Bishop, who started the company 12 years ago with fellow drummer Matt Jorgensen.
Even as the traditional recording industry has contracted, as jazz has struggled to compete commercially with rock and popular music, Origin has succeeded by keeping its goals modest. The business that started in a ramshackle, rented apartment is still a home business. Very little is spent on marketing and advertising. Recording projects aim simply to break even financially and help artists disseminate their music. The rest of the world, it turns out, has been paying attention.
Origin was recognized last month as the 2009 Jazz Label of the Year by JazzWeek, which is to jazz what Billboard is to pop music.
“We never had any goals or plans to turn it into anything in particular,” said Bishop, whose trio Scenes will play Jazz Alley Sunday night. “Mostly we put out music that fits with all the other music we put out. The sound and feel of the label hasn’t changed much since we put out our first three records.
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“It’s not a New York hard-bop thing. It’s not the smooth, L.A. thing. It’s a very Seattle, Northwest kind of sound. There’s introspection, there’s fire and there’s a patience to it. It’s what we have in our ears, and we’re kind of listening for that same kind of vibe. Not that we’re demanding that every record sounds like us, but I can hear a similarity in the personality of the musicians and the intent they have.”
The success of Origin is rooted in its intent to cultivate a local sound, much the way Sub Pop did with local rock music in the 1990s. Scenes, which also includes Seattle bassist Jeff Johnson and Portland guitarist John Stowell, is typical of that Northwest jazz sound: harmonically quirky, rhythmically untethered, highly interactive and ruminative. The three men play with a variety of other musicians but tend to stretch more when they play with one another.
“We take more chances together and go into places we wouldn’t normally go,” said Stowell, who has known Bishop for more than 20 years. “There’s no substitute for that journey. We’re more open sounding now than ever before.”
Among guitar players, Stowell has a reputation for voicing complex harmonies and thinking more like a piano player than a guitar player.
“My notion of harmony comes from Bill Evans or Herbie Hancock,” said Stowell, who will also host a clinic Sunday at 1 p.m. with singer Kelley Johnson at the Mercer Island Community Center.
The freedom and trust that defines the trio will be on stage Sunday at Jazz Alley as the group performs one set of mostly original compositions. As Origin artists always do, they will sell CDs at their show. This back-of-the-wagon approach to selling albums is typical of the way Origin has built its business.
The label includes about 125 artists. A dozen or so new artists join the label each year. Most hope to sell a few hundred CDs. As a result, Origin manages to distribute a wide variety of musicians and get more of them played on the airwaves as the label’s reputation for quality has grown.
“Being an artist-run label, there’s an expectation that their music will be a little more challenging to the listener,” said Ed Trefzger, publisher of JazzWeek. “There’s some aspect to it that will be a little unexpected. There’s a real sense of it being a musician’s label.”
Hugo Kugiya: firstname.lastname@example.org