SteepleChase’s European Jazz Turns 50


Nils Winther says he has recorded more than 1,000 albums for his Denmark-based SteepleChase label.

(Photo: Courtesy SteepleChase Records)

In August of 1972, Nils Winther was an enterprising young man with a taste for jazz and a talent for taping that he deployed liberally at the local club, Jazzhus Montmarte, in Copenhagen, Denmark. When Jackie McLean scheduled a multi-night engagement at the club, Winther naturally sought to record the saxophonist. Finding the atmosphere congenial, McLean — with a nudge from Kenny Drew, a childhood friend from New York who played piano in the club — agreed. Winther captured the entire run.

By today’s standards, the equipment — heavy reel-to-reel tapes that Winther lugged up a staircase to a room where he had rigged a connection to the performance space below — was crude. The sound quality, however, was good — and the music, superb. Supported by Drew and two Danish musicians, bassist Bo Stief and drummer Alex Riel, McLean fashioned some exhilarating improvisations on tunes by composers as diverse as Charlie Chaplin to Charlie Parker. McLean was so happy with the result that a week after the gig, he came by the club, trudged up the staircase and told a surprised Winther that he thought the material should be released on record.

“I said, ‘I don’t know about that; I don’t have any money,’” Winther recalled in a late-August Zoom conversation from his home in Virum, Denmark. “But then we talked. His friend and I, we made a contract. I got a grant to study at the university, which was enough money to make 500 LPs, and that’s what I did.” Already trading tapes with like-minded fans around the world, he applied his networking skills to seeking distribution, finding a global market that exceeded his expectations. He borrowed money and pressed an additional 500 LPs. The album was Live At Montmartre. With it, SteepleChase Records was born.

Celebrating the label’s 50th anniversary, Winther said he had recorded more than 1,000 albums. Among them are some of the most distinctive in the jazz canon. A pair by saxophonist Archie Shepp, for example, finds the voluble and innovative contributor to the 1960s avant-garde having a go at spirituals (1977’s Goin’ Home) and blues tunes (1980’s Trouble In Mind). Matched in duo with pianist Horace Parlan, Shepp works the songs to surprising effect, his free-form sensibility tempered by an obvious reverence for the material. The outcome is work that puts a premium on his considerable ability to wring the most out of a melody — something of a detour for the artist but one he clearly welcomed.

“I asked him if he would do that,” Winther said of the project. “He was very happy to.”

If the episode with Shepp was a first, it was not the only one for SteepleChase. Singer Sheila Jordan logged her first duo recording with a bass player, the Norwegian Arild Andersen (Sheila), and leader or co-leader debuts were recorded by pianist Hilton Ruiz (Piano Man), guitarist Doug Raney (Introducing Doug Raney), saxophonist René McLean (Watch Out), bassist Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen (Paul Bley/NHØP) and saxophonist Rich Perry (To Start Again). All were released in the 1970s, save for the Perry record (1993).

Perry’s album is particularly noteworthy in that it is also the first of many outings on SteepleChase with pianist Harold Danko, whom he had met when they were members of the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra in the 1970s. On the album, the two are joined by bassist Scott Colley and drummer Jeff Hirshfield, the same players who appear on Danko’s debut for the label, Next Age, released the same year. The back-and-forth of leader-sideman roles is characteristic of Winther’s mode of operation.

Danko, who wrote the title tune for To Start Again, had come to Winther’s attention when he appeared on saxophonist Lee Konitz’s 1979 album for SteepleChase, Yes, Yes, Nonet. At the session, which included among the nine-piece band stalwarts like bassist Buster Williams, trumpeter Tom Harrell and drummer Billy Hart, his interaction with Winther was minimal. But, Danko said, in the ensuing years, as he was making a mark with his quartet and was keen to record with it, he sent a demo to Winther, who reacted positively — with a characteristic caveat.

“I got a call out of the blue from Nils,” Danko recalled. “He said he loved it, but could we do a Rich Perry quartet first.” The collaboration between the artists has been one of the most fruitful in SteepleChase’s history, yielding, in addition to To Start Again and Next Age, richly rewarding albums like Stablemates, Tidal Breeze, New Autumn and The Feeling Of Jazz. The partnership continues with Danko’s next album, Trillium.

That album, to be recorded in October, will be the final installment in a trilogy inspired by Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. Consisting of Danko’s original compositions, the series has so far produced 2021’s Spring Garden, which features Danko, Perry, Hirshfield and, on bass, Jay Anderson, and 2022’s Rite Notes, a solo piano affair. On the upcoming disc, Danko will be joined by Perry and cornetist Kirk Knuffke.

Few jazz artists have mined Stravinsky — and been able to document their explorations — as deeply as Danko has in his series. And that, he allowed, was only possible because of the freedom the 78-year-old Winther offers.

“It’s really unusual,” Danko said, “and it’s amazing he’s still doing it.”

Danko reckoned that he has recorded, as leader or co-leader, about 30 albums for SteepleChase. The label, Winther said, is still releasing two or three new recordings every month, 10 months a year, as well as one vinyl per month in the fall and spring from the back catalog. Little wonder, then, that as he sat in his home amid what he estimated to be 12 to 15 thousand LPs, Winther appeared totally engaged in the enterprise — modest but forthright about his achievement with SteepleChase and the loyalty shown it by artists like Danko.

“We’re not a major company, but we can offer them a recording where they have an influence on the artistic outcome,” he said. “I consider my role to be a tool for the musicians to get their music out.” DB

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September 2023
Kris Davis
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