Label Report: Hat Hut Records of Therwil, Switzerland

Mike Silverton

[June 1998. Originally appeared in La Folia 1:2.]

Before I depart from cool, as I’m given to do when thinking about one of my very favorite labels, I’ll try to calm myself by speculating in a therapeutically boring manner about where to begin. It’s no idle question. For a start, the topic’s too large for a single report. A one man-one woman operation sports a rapid-fire catalog the equal in length and superior in spunk to that of any number of more familiar labels. The good Lord willin’ ’n’ the creek don’t rise, thus it shall be, in parts.

Werner X. and Pia Uehlinger appear on every Hat Hut release as producers, executive producers, or co-producers, in this latter capacity usually with a middle-European kulchur apparat — West-German Radio, Hessian Radio, Sender Fries, Berlin, etc. Having reviewed a great many hatARTs for Fanfare — rarely less than ecstatically — and now and again for The Abso!ute Sound, I’d the odd occasion to speak with Werner by phone. Never having asked, I cannot say what part Pia Uehlinger plays in Hat Hut’s operation. As an American, indeed I do say, without pleasure, that the United States offers nothing remotely comparable to Europe’s state-connected new-music engines. Our public radio and TV networks are flaccid, midcult affairs by comparison, for stellar example, with WDR, West-German Radio. More on this elsewhere, as a depressing subject best put off.

Time was, Hat Hut discs fell under two headings, now retired. However, because the greater part of that catalog remain in print, I’ll refer to them in the present. The smaller Now Series takes the modernist art-music route, e.g., a huge New York School survey — John Cage and Morton Feldman predominantly — as well as prominent Europeans like Giacinto Scelsi and Galina Ustvolskaya, along with excellent lesser-knowns, e.g., the Three S’s, Cornelius Schwehr, Mathias Spahlinger, and Ernstalbrecht Stiebler. In parallel wise, the Jazz Series investigates free, improvisational and avant-garde directions, no few of which one acknowledges as jazz as a matter of convenience over obvious need.

The Jazz Series is now called hatOLOGY, as, conceptually, a great improvement; the Now Series becomes hat[now]ART. A third category, hatNOIR, boasts (as I write) but two releases, another in preparation. More on this when the picture’s clearer. Hat’s catalog lists an even dozen of the new “classical” hat[now]ART branch, including discs in preparation, and eighteen for the new hatOLOGY assemblage, again with discs in preparation. The frequently updated catalog-insert accompanying every release lists the superceded Jazz and Now Series together as the 6000 Series, consisting (at the moment) of 151 releases, a few of these multiple sets, arrayed alphabetically by performer, ensemble, and/or composer.

Another, less cheering practice obtains. For something more than a year, Hat Hut’s discs have been appearing in limited editions. I’m playing as I write — what versatility! — the Mat Maneri Quintet’s Acceptance [hatOLOGY 612], a 1998 release in an edition of 1500. The largest I’ve seen numbers 4000; the smallest, 1250. I do know that for jazz or classical on any label, sales of 5000 comprise a best-seller. A pianist specializing in Cage and several Asian composers had something of a hit about ten years ago. I’m not talking about Hat Hut just now; the label’s name isn’t important. She saw no earnings, then or later, nor does she feel she’s been victimized. She understands the business, and that’s that. It’s true that some artists are paid up front, though by the cubic yard of gold bullion, not. In the milieu we speak of, nobody’s getting away with anything. They’re in it for the love of it, as am I and, I hope, you.

Since we find our thoughts at the bottom line, I’ll throw in some figures I picked up only recently as a timely, albeit alarming, aside. The information’s reliable. In 1997, CD releases, all genres and labels, numbered somewhere between 32-35 thousand (!), with the “majors” accounting for 3-5 thousand (!!), and “independents” for the rest (!!!). Less than two percent of the entire lot sold better than a 1000 copies. (I decline to litter the cyber-terrain with more exclamation points. Assume their presence.) In light of these numbers, I suppose I ought to retract “less cheering practice.” If anything, Hat Hut’s editions look to high expectations. More to the point, they take the long view. By way of contrast, major labels characteristically drop releases within months should they fail to shoot sparks. (EMI took on the distributorship of Largo, an interesting German label, and clutched it to its capacious corporate breast, come hell or high water, for six long months. Six months, and then they drop it? This does not help to allay one’s impression that the biggies haven’t a clue about what to do or where to go.)

Before I launch my Hat Hut encomia with several recent hatOLOGY releases, allow me by way of overture to connect my love and respect for this label to a succession of discs which, more than anything comparable, alerted me to the stature of Morton Feldman, composer of the world’s most glacial, economically stated, and (speaking for oneself) profoundly affecting music. A Feldman masterpiece, For Philip Guston, occupies four well-packed Now Series CDs [4-61041/2/3/4]; another, For Christian Wolff, three [3-61201/2/3]. Hat Hut’s Feldman series of single CDs and multiple-disc sets figured as one, number an even dozen, and I’ve no reason to believe the project is done. Other revelatory Now Series discs would certainly include two of Karlheinz Stockhausen. The chronologically earlier features “historic” recordings by the late David Tudor, new music’s premier keyboard virtuoso, of several Klavierstücke [Piano Pieces, 6142]; 6132, a recent performance of Spiral, features the remarkable Eberhard Blum’s voice, flute, and manipulations of a shortwave receiver. As to a flutist’s versatility, Blum as an unaccompanied, Martian-scat vocalist made what remains for me one of the more remarkable recordings in my collection: 62 Mesostics Re Merce Cunningham [two discs; 2-6095].

Let’s stick for now with hatOLOGY (which, as a reminder, replaces the Jazz Series). As alluded to above, the new heading makes better sense: one hears so much of what Hat Hut has issued in its Jazz Series as — to my delight — rather more inclusive than that. As to what I mean by that, the great bassist William Parker says it best: Jazz is less than a hundred years old — much too young to be repeating itself. As a music lover whose interests look especially to new and avant-garde art music, the jazz I most admire shares in highbrow vanguard’s epater le bourgeois cheek. It is, after all, the Great Tradition in Western art, is it not: the measure of anything genuinely innovative and interesting — wonderful, epochal, revelatory, great! — is the degree to which it exercises the complaisant, or to couch that in real-world terms, the degree to which it fails to excite their interest at all. Hey, there’s nothing wrong with a small, discerning audience. One strives to abide by Stendahl’s mot, “To the happy few.” But in speaking of daring, freshness and adventure, of mind-engaging complexity, a question intrudes: Compared with what? In matters jazzy, as easily answered as asked: Wynton Marsalis’s slick and empty banalities, to name the music of one young and mouthy partisan.

There’s something else to consider: one’s audience. Whom do I address? It’s probably best to assume a tourist at water’s edge content perhaps to dip a toe but reluctant to take the plunge. One therefore sets out bearing in mind his reader’s presumed timidity by discussing what follows as what is least or likeliest to impress him or her as a rockslide’s caress. I won’t trouble to repeat that I’ll be mentioning only personal favorites. Feel free also to assume great sound. In this regard, Hat Hut rarely does less than splendidly, either on its own or in co-production.

Flavorwise, the four Jazz Series discs featuring composer-bassist Maarten Altena’s ensembles [6029, 6056, 6082, 6094], released in ’90 and ’91, border on the astringent. Altena’s music is characteristically spare, angular, and delightfully inventive. His ensemble’s performance of the British composer, Steve Martland’s, terse Principia [on the disc entitled Code, 6094] I much prefer to the latter’s own on two all-Martland BMG Catalyst discs [62670-2, 68345-2] and an all-Martland Factory [FACD 366]. Code also features Janine Pranger’s ghostly vocal hoverings. Truth be told, these Altena discs, among several others, first led me to question the wisdom of the Jazz Series designation. HatOLOGY at least implies a label’s sense of mission. While latitude there is, stylewise, under the Jazz Series and hatOLOGY headings, Hat Hut’s catalog of jazz / meta-jazz occupies an extraordinarily high ground, while not precisely exclusively, neither is it terribly crowded. I can think of very few labels as ambitiously, exquisitely, riskily focused.

In light of Altena’s acerbities, flugelhornist-trumpeter-composer Franz Koglmann’s six extant CDs [6018, 6033, 6078, 6108, 6123, 6163] dwell in a humid, twilit place just to the side of L’Histoire du soldat. (There have been three — to my mind regrettable –Koglmann deletions.) Our man calls his smaller ensemble Monoblue Quartet, for which see F. Koglmann & L. Konitz, We Thought About Duke [6163]. The larger ensemble he calls Pipetet, for which see Schlaf Schlemmer, Schlaf Magritte [6108], a band of ten; Cantos I-IV [6123], a band of 17; The Use of Memory [6078], a band of 12. From the latter’s traycard, as a key to where Koglmann’s art aspires: “The Use of Memory was premiered at the Donaueschinger Musiktage October 1990.” Since 1921, Donaueschingen, in West Germany, has lent its name to an influential new-music festival, most definitely highbrow turf. Further, the disc occupies the Now rather than Jazz series, though I find it neither more nor less “jazzy” than the bulk of Koglmann’s list. The title work reads in full, “The Use of Memory: Bix, Miles and Chet, quoting from Miles Davis’ ‘Tune Up,’ passages from an improvisation by Chet Baker on ‘Tune Up’ and Larry Shields’ ‘Clarinet Marmalade.’ ” Well and good, a nod to jazz history. However, another title reads, “Das Rätsel eines Tages, inspired by Giorgio de Chirico,” another, “Der Vogel, dedicated to Jean Cocteau,” and yet another, “Die Kühle, Der Luft, Der Glanz, hommage à Franz Schubert.” One could see this as pompous bluster; in Koglmann’s case, most emphatically not. His music is unambiguously jazz, and yet in much of what he does, one hears a little of Stravinsky’s influence (thus my L’Histoire quip), and that of the atonalists too. One could speculate for pages. Enough to say that Koglmann’s throaty fluglehorn and trumpet take their modest place within ensembles that make remarkable music.

By way of segue to fresh-from-the-oven goods, I’ll mention a small handful (shamefully neglecting others) of later Jazz Series discs that helped develop this listener’s ear.

1994, CD 6149: Lines, with Urs Leimbruber, tenor and soprano sax; Adelhard Roidinger, double bass; Fritz Hauser, drums and percussion. A digital-to-two-track 1990 recording by Hat Hut’s master teckie, Peter Pfister. I mention his part first owing to the window it opens, as is his custom, on exquisitely detailed music-making of a decidedly improvisational character. One cannot call this classical — the comportment’s too “unbuttoned” for that. But neither would one call it jazz. The easy-access “signifiers” — the harmonic, melodic, rhythmic signposts — are not there. So let’s just identify this as one of the discs that turned me on to an aspect of activity I’m still feeling out for a place to paste labels. Category aside, Line’s outcome would not be nearly so stimulating were these skilled participants less imaginative.

1995, CD 6161: Even the Sounds Shine, with the Myra Melford Ensemble: Myra Melford, piano; Dave Douglas, trumpet; Marty Ehrlich, alto sax, clarinets; Lindsey Horner, double bass; Reggie Nicholson, drums. Certainly one of the things I’d pack for banishment to Elba. Myra Melford’s music tends toward ecstasy. There’s nothing in the least ladylike in the way she deals with a piano’s keyboard. Her ensemble’s membership is unimprovable. Not perhaps for contemplative moments.

1995, CD 6173: Constellations, with the Tiny Bell Trio: Dave Douglas, trumpet; Brad Schoeppach, guitar; Jim Black, percussion. We return to melodic jazz’s precincts. This is the American trumpeter, Dave Douglas’s, group, though in vanguard jazz’s small world there’s a good deal of lateral movement, as you will have noted directly above. Another dandy Pfister recording, this one at Radio Zürich in ’95. Nothing here in the way of revelation. Just delicious music making, including, à la Koglmann, a final track entitled “Vanitatus Vanitatum (mit Humor) by Robert Schumann.” Like a lot of Douglas’s sunlit music, it is indeed humorous in its uniquely fresh, what-you-hear-is-what-you-get way.

1995, CD 6175: Cheer Up, with Ray Anderson, trombone and tuba; Han Bennink, drums; Christy Doran, guitars. As the Chicago critic, John Corbett’s, good notes emphasize, an American, Hollander, and Irish-born Swiss show us what globalism sounds like as an esthetic Ideal. The listener finds himself steeped in wild invention relieved at periods by blusey sweetness. Another Peter Pfister jewel, Zürich, ’95. As is the

1995, CD 6162: Sweet Freedom — Now What? with Joe McPhee, tenor sax, soprano and alto clarinets; Lisle Ellis, double bass; Paul Plimley, piano. When I played Lines for a friend, he commented, “Ah yes, white jazz.” Maybe so. After all, Franz Koglmann entitled one of his Jazz Series discs A White Line (though not in the least provocatively: he homages his music’s black roots as well). Lines does have a Euro-vanguard feel to it, though I say so perhaps because I know who’s playing. I’m not at all sure I could distinguish it, unknowing, from New York downtown enterprise, as in several Einstein discs I’d like to get to some day. If race figures in jazz as other than, on the listener’s part, grist for friendly speculation, one soon begins to sound like some white-boy version of Miles Davis at his least generous, or latterly, the mouthy Wynton. While Sweet Freedom — Now What? has about it that je-ne-sais-quoi, black-blusey cool, McPhee’s sidemen, Ellis and Plimley, are, alas, pigmentally uncooperative. As I say, it’s a question of speculation, particularly when one moves up to speed with Hat Hut’s recent offerings. (The business about race in music is irksome. Postmodern multiculturists — Marxists with too little to do — attempt to cut Western art music down to what they see as its size as an aspect of European imperialism. Tell that to the Asians who’ve made it their own. Though the participants differ, jazz reveals a similar motley, and hoorah for all concerned.)

Now to the present: in Eleven Ghosts [hatOLOGY 507, probably an edition of 1500 — the sleeve’s in Texas being photographed for The Abso!ute Sound], Pianist Myra Melford and percussionist Han Bennink splash about in blues and — of all things! — the blandly iconic “Maple Leaf Rag,” as well as in their own, allusion-free interactions, in such a way as to give postmodernist importation the very best possible name. In a word, they’re that good. (With regard to Scott Joplin and the blues numbers, I’d have gone so far as to suggest a kind of good-natured deconstruction, were that term less laden with incoherent moss.)

Allusive gamesmanship has it place, but not in Yarbles [hatOLOGY 510, edition of 1500], where melodic and rhythmic intent dwell likewise beyond the pale: Burkhard Beins, drums, percussion; Martin Pfleiderer, soprano and alto saxes; Peter Niklas Wilson, double bass. While Wilson’s was the only name I recognized when my review copy arrived, Yarbles has since become one of my Hat Hut faves. Be warned, however. An unopen ear will hear these delights as Brownian randomness. I treasure the disc for its ability, uncanny given the competition’s keen proximity, to engage so successfully in fresh, creative unclutter, for such is what I’m bound to call it. The range is quite astonishing: delicious, unanticipated sounds, for long decibelic instances as field mice at play (and for which a sound system of superior resolution and tranparency does maximal justice). Let’s let the annotator, Bert Noglik, make the case. He does not exaggerate: “Listening to the tapes … I thought about the privilege of being one of the first with access to a very intimate process of sound production. As is the case with most improvised music, the [players’] cooperation seems to be a private affair of public importance.” In this particular, as well as in general, when the going gets better than good, a private affair of public importance nails it as firmly as mere words can.

Annotator Noglik once again, about another disc, and for this listener, the stuff of wishes fulfilled: “As with any other form of music, these sounds and rhythms are born of silence. The ‘triologue’ starts from nowhere, or perhaps from somewhere behind the scenes, the three players making sparse, sensitive attempts to find a common basis of communication … ,” which these players accomplish in glorious spades. No Try No Fail [hatOLOGY 509, edition of 1500] features a trio of remarkable instrumentalists, whom I know and admire from other recordings. Ansgar Ballhorn recorded these “live” Cologne events ever so brilliantly: Urs Leimgruber, soprano and tenor saxes; Joëlle Léandre, double bass; Fritz Hauser, percussion. Because I cannot begin to say enough in praise of this release, I’ll offer but one suggestion. If you’re of the untested impression that improvisation amounts to little more than anarchic mischief, acquire No Try No Fail along with Yarbles and compare them. While either trio operates within a common modus operandi, in substance and in spirit, outcomes differ about as much as outcomes can. Yarbles’ trio operates as independently elegant miniaturists. No Try No Fail, its five parts entitled First through Fourth, and Last, occupies a grander terrain. You can only know what I mean by listening, which I urge you to do.

Recommendations continue, accelerator floored, with Ellipsis [hatOLOGY 511]. I’m astonished that so many recent hatOLOGYs have become personal treasures. In that lovely hierarchy, No Try No Fail shares its place with Ellipsis, as an imaginative match. The listener finds himself on the same uncompromising apex. It’s especially interesting to me that an earlier Guillermo Gregorio Jazz Series release (with a different cast of players) in no way prepares us for Ellipsis’s subtle marvels. Gregorio, a native of Argentina, has resided in the US for a number of years. He performs in Ellipsis on clarinet, alto and tenor saxes, and in the number entitled Moholy 1, for four instrumentalists, as conductor; Gene Coleman, bass clarinet; Jim O’Rourke, acoustic guitar, accordion; Carrie Biolo, vibes; Michael Cameron, acoustic double bass. A generally serene character impinges on that of chamber art music owing in good measure to the excellent Michael Cameron’s bowed bass, which I took at moments for a cello. Note as well the absence of drums. Operating as it does in a sui-generis universe, one cannot pin the music down; rather, it pins down the listener by the gentlest means imaginable, credit attaching to a remarkable ensemble in performance of its leader’s brilliant sound-sculptures, as well as to Engineer Steve Mezger’s part in Chicago’s AirWave Recording Studios. The surrealist André Breton applied the Marvelous as that quality that sets great art apart. Ellipsis is marvelous, yes, as well touched by the Marvelous.

I note with pleasure Art Lange’s name amidst these proceedings. My Fanfare colleague has long served as annotator for Hat Hut’s Now and Jazz Series. In Ellipsis his name appears as that of producer, as it does in Hat’s third Matthew Shipp release in co-production with the Uehlingers. Shipp is a New York pianist with an unusually large CDiscography, given this kind of outer-edge enterprise. I particularly relish the young fellow’s hard-driving, rhapsodic manner. In The Multiplication Table [hatOLOGY 516, an edition of 4000 as an earnest, no doubt, of rising stardom], he performs in a trio with bassist William Parker and percussionist Susie Ibarra, with whom he often teams. Carl Seltzer of Seltzer Sound (NY) recorded, about which a small complaint. As is the case with many of the discs in which this splendid bassist plays, his instrument dominates. Mine is not an especially bass-heavy system, and yet The Multiplication Table’s opening number, Shipp’s wild-side paraphrase of “Autumn Leaves,” has the tableware dancing. (However, I cannot imagine who in Audiophilia would judge this low-end assault a fault. More on the order of a fault-line delight, I shouldn’t wonder.)

I have to stop somewhere, and I did say this was to be the first of several reports. So let’s leave off with two classical hat[now]ART releases. The first [108, an edition of 1500], another Art Lange production, features Lange’s own arrangements for quintet of Anthony Braxton’s Composition No. 10 in two versions, 101 and 102, and Composition No. 16 (+101). Never mind the peculiar titles. They, along with Braxton’s notational systems, deserve a book-length aside, for which I am abundantly disqualified (nor much motivated). We’re back in Chicago, with Engineer Steve Mezger recording once again in marvelous detail: Guillermo Gregorio, alto saxophone and clarinet; Carrie Biolo, vibraphone and percussion; Michael Cameron, acoustic bass; Gene Coleman, bass clarinet; Jim O’Rourke, accordion, hurdy-gurdy, and electronics, this last in Composition 10’s second Lange version. The reader will have noted a cast of players identical to that of Ellipsis. Be he or she especially sharp, noted too are the sax’s and vibes’ upgrade to saxophone and vibraphone, as befits highbrow action. In truth, Braxton straddles jazz and classical entirely self-consciously in a wide range of styles, another subject for another time. I’ve had the odd problem with his music, in the present instances absent from view. This gorgeous disc I’ll play for guests to show off the system’s low-level detail (that’s the first and callow reason) but also to introduce an aspect of music-making too many people know little of. The Braxton disc is as exquisite in its way as its sister-of-sorts, Ellipsis.

Ernstalbrecht Stiebler’s … Im Klang … [hat[now]ART 109, an addition of 2000 — the ellipses belong with the title] reintroduces us hatwise to a German modernist born in ’34. A tripartite production (Hessian Radio, Frankfurt / Sender Freies, Berlin / Digital & Jazz Classics, ’s-Hertogenbosch, Netherlands) features a pair of drone-like works, … Im Klang … I and II of 1995, framing a stylistic precursor, Klavierstück ’87, which, taken together, may well address a significant trend. Teodoro Anzellotti, accordion; Marianne Schroeder, piano; and Huub Ten Hacken, organ participate in these drone-centered works in a way I find a bit offputting, but in the main fascinating. My reluctance to embrace wholeheartedly looks to a lingering despair over art music’s flight into simplistics. However, I’m generally shown to have been wrong in these matters; further, it’s authentic art’s job to keep one off balance.

As a last gasp, mention w/o comment, or much of it anyway, of other hatOLOGY releases you’re likely to enjoy. (I certainly did!) Western Front, Vancouver 1996 [513, edition of 1500], with violinist Carlos Zingaro and cellist Peggy Lee is seven improvisational encounters. I play it often and have yet to tire. Coming Down the Mountain, with the Joe Maneri Quartet [501, edition of 3000]: Joe Maneri, reeds and piano; Mat Maneri, violin; Ed Schuller, double bass; Randy Peterson, percussion. Joe Maneri also teaches microtonal composition. Nuff said? Acceptance [512, edition of 1500], with the Mat Maneri Quintet: Mat Maneri, violin; Gary Valente, trombone; John Dirac, guitar; Ed Schuller, double bass; Randy Peterson, and Joe Maneri on alto sax in the title work only. Mat Maneri, Joe’s son, also operates as a recording engineer. He taped Acceptance and Coming Down in Mountain in Needham and Framingham, Massachusetts, roundabout his father’s Boston base. Star Eyes, Hamburg 1983 [518, edition of 4000], with Lee Konitz, alto sax; Martial Solal, piano. Here we’re closer to jazz’s core conventions. Judging from the edition’s size, it’s also an anticipated best-seller. Both players are masterful senior figures. The French pianist, Solal, really has to be heard. He’s terrific.

Hat Hut’s American distributor is NorthCountry, Cadence Building, Redwood NY 13679; phone 315 287 2852 / fax 2860 / email

Not goodbye but au revoir. À tout à l’heure. Auf Wiedersehen.