Ezz-thetics Reissues ’60s Free-Jazz Classics

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On Nov. 7, 1966, a 31-year-old Swiss fan of cutting-edge jazz made the short trip from his home in Basel across the border into Germany to hear the Albert Ayler Quintet perform in Lörrach. The performance by the saxophonist’s singular five-piece — with his brother Donald on trumpet, Michel Samson on violin, William Folwell on bass and Beaver Harris on drums — made a deep impression, further cementing the young man’s love of exploratory music.

As the years passed, Werner X. Uehlinger collected new recordings, keeping abreast of the developments of free-jazz in the U.S. But as the major labels began to reduce their investment in jazz, and artists began to release their own work, recordings became harder to track down.

In the early 1970s, he came across a magazine with an advertisement placed by the great Poughkeepsie, New York, multi-instrumentalist Joe McPhee. He placed a direct mail order for one of the musician’s first recordings on CJR, and when Uehlinger made his first trip to the U.S. in 1974, he made a point of visiting McPhee. That meeting led to the formation of Hat Hut Records, a label Uehlinger started primarily to release McPhee’s work.

In 1975, Hat Hut debuted with Black Magic Man, and over the course of six years the imprint released a dozen of his albums. By then Hat Hut had established itself as a major force in the production of avant-garde jazz and improvised music, creating a powerful catalog with classic titles from the likes of Steve Lacy, Cecil Taylor and Irène Schweizer. The label would go on to issue crucial work from artists like David Murray, Sun Ra, Billy Bang, Anthony Braxton and Vienna Art Orchestra, as well as many others.

Uehlinger remembered that the Ayler concert he witnessed back in 1966 had been recorded by German radio, and he reached out to the noted producer and writer Joachim-Ernst Berndt, who connected him with the station. The rights to the recording belonged to Ayler’s teenage daughter Desiree, but in 1982 she wasn’t old enough to negotiate a deal.

“Her mother, Arlene Ayler, took care of the arrangement,” said Uehlinger. A year after rebranding his label as Hat Art in 1984, Uehlinger finally released the music from the Lörrach concert that had so deeply seared its way into his consciousness, collecting it with recordings made in Paris on the same tour as a double LP titled Live Lörrach, Germany/Paris, France. The recordings represented a major discovery, capturing one of the saxophonist’s best bands at the peak of its power.

As Hat Art, Uehlinger’s label thrived, bulking up its catalog and slowly expanding its scope to include experimental music by artists such as Arnold Dreyblatt, Pauline Oliveros and the French group Catalogue, in addition to a growing roster of jazz and improv figures like John Zorn, Franz Koglmann and Dave Burrell. He also began recording and releasing contemporary classical music.

“I got a lot of information about [John] Cage and [Morton] Feldman from jazz musicians who listened to this music, especially Steve Lacy,” Uehlinger said. “He pushed me to do these recordings, and then I met people like Marianne Schroeder, who record ed [Giacinto] Scelsi, and he pushed me into Galina Ustvolskaya and Eberhard Blum, who played in Feldman’s trio. These were musicians totally dedicated to new music — they didn’t play Chopin or Mozart; they were only playing contemporary music.”

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, he licensed dazzling archival music of Jimmy Giuffre from European radio stations and reissued select items from the catalog of L.A.’s Revelation Recordings, including titles from Warne Marsh, Anthony Ortega, and John Carter and Bobby Bradford’s New Art Ensemble.

In 1997, Uehlinger rebranded the label again, forming Hatology for jazz-related titles and Hat(new)Art for contemporary classical work. The new imprint remastered Ayler’s Lörrach/Paris recordings, releasing it on CD in 2002, and maintaining its place as a capstone in the label’s history. Beginning in 2016, the label licensed additional European radio recordings made on the 1966 tour in Berlin and Stockholm, and it also released a concert by Ayler’s quartet with Don Cherry, Gary Peacock and Sunny Murray recorded in Copenhagen in 1964.

In 2016, Uehlinger sold the label to the Belgian distributor OutHere with a three-year agreement that allowed him to continue to produce recordings, but at the end of 2019 the deal ended. In order to continue his work as a producer, he formed yet another imprint called Ezz-thetics — named for the classic 1961 George Russell album.

As with all of his labels, Uehlinger continued to release new work on the imprint, building on his long relationship with pianist Matthew Shipp and carrying on with his work in the contemporary music field, but the major focus on the latest imprint has been reissuing free-jazz classics from the 1960s, many of which remain in print.

Due to Switzerland’s public domain laws, material recorded prior to 1970 doesn’t require any licensing agreement, so Uehlinger, with the massive help of recording engineer Michael Brändli, has been releasing new packages of previously issued work from artists like Marion Brown, Archie Shepp, John Coltrane and Paul Bley, to say nothing of vintage Charlie Parker work. In many cases the improved fidelity is jaw-dropping.

Earlier this year the label reissued Nothing Is…, a classic Sun Ra album originally released by ESP-Disk’.

“It’s incredible,” Uehlinger said. “I had to call the engineer to tell him how fascinated I am. I’ve been hearing things on the album that I’ve never heard before. A lot the details are on the master tapes, but you have to go in and bring them out.”

He has also extended his devotion to Albert Ayler with a recent double CD featuring live recordings made in the saxophonist’s birthplace of Cleveland. The material on La Cave Live: Cleveland 1966 Revisited was previously issued on the massive Ayler box set released by Revenant Records in 2004, Holy Ghost: Rare & Unissued Recordings (1962–1970). But this new reissue sounds so much richer and nuanced thanks to Brändli’s engineering magic it may as well be an entirely new discovery.

Uehlinger said he has more Ayler material on the way, with fresh reissues of the saxophonist’s Live At Slug’s Saloon — 1966 performances recorded at the New York bar and issued in 1982 by Base, DIW and ESP-Disk’ — due this year.

Asked why he would focus on music that in some cases remains readily available, Uehlinger responded, “It’s the importance of the recordings. I got a lot of feedback from people about bringing this music back into the conversation. My list of future projects is very big.” DB

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