The MPS Label Celebrates a Resurgence

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​MPS has released singer China Moses’ Nightintales.

(Photo: Sylvain Norget)

Like a lot of well-off young men in the 1950s, Hans Georg Brunner-Schwer was a dedicated audio enthusiast. But while others focused on playback, Brunner-Schwer—a gifted engineer and amateur musician—was far more interested in recording. Further, as a co-director of SABA, an electronics firm founded by his grandfather and specializing in high-end audio and TV components, he was unusually well-positioned to pursue his hobby. So, he built a state-of-the-art recording studio, which he installed in the family estate in Villingen, Germany.

Brunner-Schwer also was a dedicated jazz fan, and in 1961 he convinced Oscar Peterson to visit his home, where he recorded the pianist in performance before a few fellow jazz fans. Peterson, astonished by the fidelity of the recordings, returned regularly to play at the estate. Meanwhile, Brunner-Schwer had launched a small record label, also called SABA. But because Peterson was under contract in the United States, none of the party sessions could be released.

Then, in 1968, GTE bought a majority share in SABA. Brunner-Schwer held on to the music branch, re-christening it MPS, or “Musik Produktion Schwartzwald”—which translates to Black Forest Music Production. At the same time, Peterson was without a recording contract. Returning to Germany to play another of Brunner-Schwer’s parties, he was offered a deal, and MPS had its first jazz star under contract.

As a label, MPS reflected the tastes of its three principal producers: Brunner-Schwer, Joachim-Ernst Berendt and Gigi Campi. Pianists were one of the company’s strong suits; in addition to Peterson, their stable included George Duke, Monty Alexander and George Shearing, as well as European stars like Martial Solal. There were also a number of jazz violinists—Stéphane Grappelli, Don “Sugarcane” Harris, Jean-Luc Ponty—and a host of large ensembles.

Thanks to Berendt, MPS also released a considerable amount of avant-garde jazz. “That was what I always liked about the variety of the catalog,” said Christian Kellersman, creative director for Edel:Kultur, MPS’ current owners. “I think Brunner-Schwer was not really in favor of all of the free-jazz stuff Berendt did, but he was open to do it.”

The label continued down an eclectic path until 1983, when it was purchased by Polydor. Thirty years later, as Polydor (now Polygram) merged with EMI, MPS was put on the market, and acquired by the German media company Edel AG, which hired Kellersman.

The new team has been reissuing CDs from the more than 500 titles in the MPS catalog, painstakingly remastered from the original analog tapes, in high-quality gatefold sleeves with liner notes and the original artwork. Among the most recent batch: In Tune by Oscar Peterson with Singers Unlimited from 1971; Tristeza On Guitar by Baden Powell; Soaring by Don Ellis; and Albert Mangelsdorff And His Friends, featuring trumpeter Don Cherry and drummer Elvin Jones.

Recently, MPS also has been signing artists and producing new albums. These range from clarinetist Rolf Kühn—who was signed to the label in the ’70s—to the Norwegian Sami singer-songwriter Mari Boine.

Singer China Moses, whose album Nightintales was released on MPS last year, couldn’t be happier with the label’s creative attitude. The daughter of jazz singer Dee Dee Bridgewater, she’s spent much of her musical career, she says, “having people expect a lot from me.”

“This was the first time I had somebody who said, ‘Just be yourself,’” she explained. “‘We’re not going to tell you to do a straightahead album. We don’t want you to. Your album goes from funk to swing jazz. That’s exactly what this label is about.’

“And I was like, ‘But I don’t scat, and I don’t have perfect tone.’ All of my insecurities, being the daughter of somebody who can scat her ass off and has amazing tone,” she laughed. “And [MPS] was like, ‘Yeah, we don’t care. It’s good. We’re happy.’ And I’ve been their most successful album to date.” DB



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