Origin Records: 25 Organic Years


Origin Records was founded by John Bishop, who was a drummer before becoming a label head.

(Photo: Lisa Hagen Glynn)

Origin Records turned 25 in August. And in typical understated fashion, founder John Bishop says he didn’t go out of his way to mark the Seattle label’s silver anniversary.

But Origin did release its 500th title — Chris Walden’s Missa lubileum Aureum: Golden Jubilee Jazz Mass featuring Tierney Sutton, Kurt Elling, the St. Dominic Schola Cantorum and the LMR Jazz Orchestra — during that anniversary month.

And that’s just one of 20 releases scheduled on Origin for this year.

“We’re just cranking out records and trying to keep things moving. That’s all,” Bishop confirms in a phone interview from his office in the Emerald City of Seattle. “And being able to have our 500th release and everything else we’ve put out in 2022, it all feels like, ‘Ooh, it’s a party!’ anyways.”

The Origin story is one of fortunate timing, good will and camaraderie. And, as with most successful enterprises, there was a good deal of hard work involved, too.

“It was a magical moment there from ’92 to ’97,” says Bishop, reflecting on the period leading up to Origin’s launch. “The cost of producing CDs dropped like a rock, and the process of getting everything together was made easier by technology. At the same time, much of the infrastructure was still around. We still had Tower Records, Virgin Megastores and Borders, and there were still highly functioning distributors.”

Bishop, a drummer before he was a label head, knew the greater Seattle area as a working musician years before the label was even a thought. He also showed early signs of being a skilled professional hyphenate with his graphic design pursuits. “Way back in the ’80s, I was doing concert posters and cassette covers,” he reveals. “Then I had a couple of friends who forced a computer on me and made me figure it out in the early ’90s, when technology was moving rapidly.

“I probably did 40 or 50 CD covers, and it was, like, ‘Well, I’ve got records coming out. I produced them, they’re by friends of mine, and I’m doing all the covers. Let’s just put a name on it,’” he adds. “There was no big light bulb going off with me saying, ‘Boy, a record label would be fun!’”

Like Ellington had Strayhorn, Bishop has fellow drummer (and his former percussion pupil) Matt Jorgensen. “My partner in all this, Matt, started working on websites just as I was working on the label,” he recalls. “So he was figuring that that whole angle out as we got started.”

The Origin roster began with a natural local focus, highlighting work from musicians based in the Pacific Northwest, and then expanding outward. Bishop explains there has never been any big A&R plan and that the 350 artists came aboard as organically as Origin first came about. There are now other related labels including Origin Classical, which was founded in 2008.

“I’d already been playing for 20 years, so there was a big circle of people that fit into our vibe,” he says. “It’s one of the things that I really like about the way that it’s all played out. We’d get one artist from Chicago. And then within a couple of weeks I’d get a call from another one, because they’d all be talking amongst each other.

“So, we’ve got this nice base of probably 50 musicians from Chicago, 15 to 20 from Denver and other pockets from Portland, L.A., San Diego and New York,” he continues. “Word starts getting around. And to me, that’s a lot more fun.”

Saxophonist and multi-reed player Kristen Strom released her most recent project, Moving Day: The Music Of John Shifflett, on Origin’s sibling label OA2 in 2018 based on previous experience and the reputation of the label itself. The San José resident played tenor saxophone and flutes on multi-reedist Jim Norton’s 2014 Time Remembered: Compositions Of Bill Evans album.

“Jim and his wife had a great experience with John (Gibson),” Strom says. “So I reached out to him and said, “I’m doing a record of (the late) John Shifflett’s music. John played on a lot of Origin albums, so would you be interested in releasing it?’ And he said, ‘Oh, yes. For sure.’

“And it was also the idea that there [are] so many great artists on the label, and what I had heard was that maybe radio programmers or whatnot would get Origin Records CDs in the mail, and they were going to listen to them. They wouldn’t just go to the bottom of a pile, because their artistic reputation is really good.”

Having fellow musicians running Origin is the big part of the appeal. And since Bishop follows the “hire those you know … and like” principle, he’s collaborated with five of his former drum students starting with Jorgensen.

“A serious musician in his own right, Bishop is smart, strategic, organized and communicative,” says flugelhornist Dmitri Matheny, whose latest album, Cascadia, came out on Origin in July. “He moves at the speed of business, responds quickly … and offers helpful suggestions.”

Both Strom and the southern Washington-based Matheny praise Bishop’s cover artwork and package design for their albums. Having the label founder as designer since the first release has ensured that its releases have an identifiable look and aesthetic, à la ECM Records.

Origin has also produced the Ballard Jazz Festival since 2003, with a pandemic-induced pause from 2020 to 2022. Bishop is careful to book beyond his label’s artist roster to differentiate the two entities and has brought in headliners such as saxophonists Sonny Fortune, Gary Bartz and the late Lee Konitz. “They play other festivals but don’t headline them. So we’re able to give them their deserved moment,” he says.

“Putting out records is fun. Being involved in the momentum that gets started when a musician decides they’re going to record their stuff and then making something happen, that’s fun,” he concludes. “And then doing the drudge work of running a label is a necessary part of that.” DB

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September 2023
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