High hopes always accompany the launch of a record label. But many labels falter due to the challenges of today’s economy and the changing nature of consumers’ buying habits. A select few labels, such as Motéma Music, manage to thrive. Founded in San Francisco and now based in Harlem, Motéma is celebrating its 15th anniversary this year.
Helmed by owner Jana Herzen, Motéma has not only figured out how to weather the storm—it was a steep learning curve, she admitted, one that former Narada executive David Neidhardt helped her negotiate—but has also nurtured the careers of rising-star artists. Singer-songwriter Gregory Porter helped raise the label’s profile when his two Motéma albums, Water and Be Good, each earned Grammy nominations. “After that, artists started coming to us,” Herzen said. Motéma is also home to thrice Grammy-nominated pianist Joey Alexander, whose eagerly anticipated new album is titled Eclipse.
One veteran on the roster is Arturo O’Farrill, who has won three Grammys, including this year’s Best Instrumental Composition honor for “Three Revolutions” from his 2017 collaboration with Chucho Valdés, Familia: Tribute To Bebo & Chico. “Arturo saw that we were doing well and decided to record his large-ensemble Latin jazz projects with us,” Herzen said.
Other artists, including vocalist René Marie and pianist Monty Alexander, were impressed by the Motéma aesthetic, which is jazz-based with a groove underpinning, and it showcases artists who compose their own material. “I call it cinematic jazz,” Herzen said. “It’s jazz that tells a story. There’s a dramatic arc from the beginning to the end. With rare exceptions, you won’t find people on our label who are doing jazz standards. And even though jazz is a music that takes a lot of chops to play, you won’t be hearing artists display their chops from one band member’s solo to the next.”
Herzen has earned a reputation for encouraging artistic exploration. “Jana wants artists with vision,” said saxophonist Donny McCaslin, who is working on his second album for Motéma. “She’s not afraid for her artists to break through boundaries. She wants to shake things up.” McCaslin’s forthcoming album, with its alt-rock and electronica edge, will mark a distinct departure from his previous work. “It’s a hybrid style but with no swing,” he explained, regarding his new sound. “From being on the road, I felt a change in my music, and it’s nothing that I could have imagined playing five to 10 years ago. Jana and her staff have been very supportive.”
Motéma operates out of a Harlem brownstone a half-block away from where Art Kane took his iconic 1958 photo known as A Great Day in Harlem. The Apollo Theater isn’t far away.
Originally Herzen envisioned the label—Motéma means “heart” in the Bantu language of Lingala and Herzen’s name means “heart” in German—as a home for high-quality music of any genre. In fact, her impetus for launching the label was to release her African-infused, singer-songwriter album Soup’s On Fire. But once in New York, she began to establish connections with the city’s jazz scene.
The pivotal moment for Motéma came in 2010 when pianist Geri Allen (1957–2017) sought out Herzen. A veteran of Blue Note and Verve, Allen was seeking the freedom to stretch. “It was amazing when Geri asked to join Motéma,” Herzen said. “She made some artistically outstanding albums for us, a total of five. She didn’t get the recognition that she should have, but since her passing, you see the rise of women in jazz. There’s a shift in the tides, and Geri has been important in that.”
Jazz is central to Motéma’s vision, as evidenced by upcoming releases from saxophonist David Murray and vibraphonist Stefon Harris. But two of the label’s current projects are less jazz-oriented, yet full of the vitality that Herzen champions: electrifying soul singer Deva Mahal (daughter of blues icon Taj Mahal) and the multi-genre international project Playing for Change— with its cast of more than 210 musicians, including Buddy Guy, Dr. John and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band—which Herzen described as “the ultimate project of inclusiveness of all cultures.” DB