Posi-Tone Perseveres, Despite Pandemic


Pianist Art Hirahara (left) and producer Marc Free work in the Acoustic Recording studio in Brooklyn in 2018. In the background are bassist Joe Martin and saxophonist Melissa Aldana.

(Photo: Sara Pettinella)

All musicians have seen their activities dramatically reduced during the coronavirus pandemic, but a core group of players associated with the Posi-Tone label has remained remarkably busy during the crisis. Between August and December, these musicians recorded a series of albums slated for release in 2021.

“Problems are just opportunities in ugly costumes,” said Marc Free, the producer who runs Posi-Tone along with his business partner, recording engineer Nick O’Toole. Free’s quip, which he made during a recent videoconference interview with DownBeat, reflects his optimistic, can-do attitude.

Founded in 1995, Posi-Tone has released more than 200 titles, including works by saxophonist Roxy Coss, pianist Orrin Evans and keyboardist Theo Hill. More than 100 of those albums were recorded at Brooklyn’s Acoustic Recording studio. During the pandemic, Free and O’Toole hatched the idea that their musicians could continue to record material—as long as everyone felt safe and comfortable in the working environment, including Michael Brorby, the engineer who owns Acoustic Recording.

For years, Free has fostered a significant amount of collaboration among a group of players. So, a musician who records his or her leader date with a small combo is likely to be an accompanist for one of those other musicians when the time comes for them to record their leader date.

Such collaboration requires a certain level of friendship and personal chemistry. But during the pandemic, making recordings required another huge factor: trust.

Among the musicians involved in this bold adventure are pianist Art Hirahara, bassist Boris Kozlov, drummer Rudy Royston and vibraphonist Behn Gillece. On Aug. 9–12, the quartet recorded Gillece’s album Still Doing Our Thing (slated for a March release) and an as-yet-untitled Hirahara leader date. All the musicians wore face coverings during the entire process, except for guest tenor saxophonist Nicole Glover, who removed her mask only when she was playing.

Free wasn’t physically present in the studio during the sessions, but he still served as producer, listening to a private livestream of the performances and offering comments via Zoom.

Before the recoding sessions were organized, Free spent a lot of time on the phone, ensuring that everyone was on board. “I called up [the musicians] and I said, ‘Would you guys be willing to not take some gigs and quarantine yourself, and get tested, if necessary, so that we could do this?’ And they said, ‘Yeah, for sure,’” Free recalled. “We decided to [record material for two albums] in a kind of mammoth, four-day session. So, we did a record for Art and we did a record for Behn. I wanted to stick with people who I really had something much more than just a musical or professional relationship with.

“They needed to trust me, I needed to trust them, and they needed to trust each other,” Free continued. “Having worked together so much, these guys have a familial vibe. What I’ve been doing the last few years is like a repertory theater kind of thing, using a crew of people who move in and out. Sometimes they’re the lead, sometimes they’re in a supporting role, and sometimes they’re just writing a song for a session they’re not even on.”

In a separate interview, DownBeat checked in with Gillece (from his home in New Jersey) and Hirahara (from The Bunker Studio in Brooklyn) to hear their thoughts on the August recording sessions.

“Most people would make the assumption that when you put all those factors together—the pandemic, things are slow and maybe everybody’s a little rusty—that [the musicianship] might not reach a certain level,” Gillece said. “But I definitely didn’t feel like that at all, from any of my colleagues or personally. ... You know, it seems like music is this physical thing, and in a lot of ways it is. You need to keep in good physical shape to play well. But it’s definitely more mental than anything else. If you’re in the right, positive mindset, you could still perform at the top of your game—even in a trying time like this.”

Hirahara explained that although his first day back in the studio proved to be mentally exhausting, he quickly returned to his normal playing mode—albeit with a mask on.

“I think recording is really an important way for us to continue our creative output and continue evolving,” Hirahara said. “For me, it’s sort of a lifesaver to have these recording projects, because I’m not able to tour or really play out in any real, serious way.”

To avoid risks associated with ordering take-out food, Gillece packed a homemade lunch for all of the recording dates he did in 2020. “I’ve eaten egg salad at every recording session,” he said with a chuckle.

As Posi-Tone marked its 25th anniversary in 2020, Free begin systematically posting older titles, as well as recent releases, on Bandcamp. At press time, there were nearly 70 titles available, including keyboardist John Escreet’s 2008 album, Consequences, and saxophonist Alexa Tarantino’s Clarity, which was released June 5.

Posi-Tone albums slated for release in 2021 include trombonist Michael Dease’s Give It All You Got and saxophonist Diego Rivera’s Indigenous, which features his original compositions, as well as renditions of tunes by Cannonball Adderley and Stevie Wonder.

“The question for us is sustainability and engagement with our audience,” Free said. “And there is no better engaged audience than the jazz audience. When people get a taste for this music—generally through seeing it live—they become jazz fans for life. They just get hooked.” DB

This story originally was published in the February 2021 issue of DownBeat. Subscribe here.

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