From Admirer to Innovator: Berlin’s WhyPlayJazz Records

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Saxophonist Phillip Gropper is an integral part of WhyPlayJazz’s musical roster.

(Photo: Dovile Sermokas)

Berlin is one of Europe’s most creatively potent melting pots, an artistic magnet that brings dynamic figures from around the globe. Still, despite its richly cosmopolitan makeup, there’s loads of homegrown talent, and for decades the local jazz scene has been one of the strongest anywhere in the world.

Yet those natives are often overlooked if they’re not active on the international touring circuit—a shame for curious listeners who might not know how to access the exciting work happening in the city.

In recent years one of the best outlets to discover cutting-edge jazz from Berlin has been WhyPlayJazz Records, which was founded by a software designer who lives two hours from the city, in Greifswald. In fact, Roland Schulz was dismissive of jazz—preferring electronic music of the 1980s like Vangelis, Kraftwerk, Jean-Michel Jarre, and Art of Noise, alternative rock, and hip-hop—until an old girlfriend dragged him to a concert in his hometown in 2004.

The group he heard was Sonne, a short-lived quartet featuring some of Berlin’s most dynamic players, back when they were still figuring things out: drummer Christian Lillinger, saxophonist Philipp Gropper, bassist Johannes Fink and keyboardist Carsten Daerr.

“The label was born out of the situation where I wanted to buy a CD from this band, but they had no recordings,” said Schulz. “I found the idea of being able to work with such great musicians—and to produce [the kinds of recordings] I would like to have for myself—very tempting. Working in a creative and inspiring environment, and creating something beautiful—I could not say no.”

Luckily, the musicians also agreed. The label dropped Sonne’s eponymous debut the following year, and it was a couple of years before a second title surfaced, a recording by the Danish quartet Quartz, whose members spend significant time in Berlin.

Meanwhile, back in Greifswald, Schulz expanded his activities to begin presenting a monthly jazz series, inspired by the music he was discovering in Berlin. By 2010, however, the label began ratcheting up its production, and WhyPlayJazz now boasts a catalog with more than 30 titles. Schulz expects to release between 5-8 titles annually from now on.

The music Schulz loves pivots around post-bop and free-jazz. In general recordings are built from pithy compositions, and the loose and limber improvisational style draws upon a wide swath of influences from Europe and the U.S., stretching back to the ’60s. But certain records push beyond those parameters, whether the post-Third Stream experiments of vibraphonist Simon Kanzler on his album Double Identity or the jacked-up energy of the guitar-driven trio Zur Schönen Aussicht.

Schulz notes that the label has grown, and now invests money in press to reach a larger base, but it’s still an uphill battle. “With cross-financing it wouldn’t work, and it probably never will,” he said.

A number of musicians are clearly integral figures in the label’s development, such as saxophonist Gropper (a founding member of the dynamic trio Hyperactive Kid, which now goes by Gropper/Graupe/Lillinger), the reedist Benjamin Weidekamp, and the Danish cornetist Mads la Cour.

“My first contacts came from Berlin,” explained Schulz. “Berlin is a high-rise for the kind of jazz I love so much, but I am also currently working with musicians from the Dresden/Leipzig area. I say yes to a release when I like the music and the chemistry is right. The music and the dealings with the players must give me pleasure.”

The musicians finance the studio costs, with Schulz covering design, manufacturing, and distribution, but he notes that he doesn’t interfere whatsoever with the music itself: “It’s important that they should feel comfortable.”

For more information, visit whyplayjazz.de. DB



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