JAZZ – Michael Cuscuna (Mosaic Records)
Mosaic Records is a powerhouse in the record industry, specifically jazz, as they produce (and have been doing so since ’83) or more accurately – they craft the definitive box sets (Mosaic is considered the originator of the category) for a number of jazz greats. The level of detail of these collectors sets can of course be only produced by true jazz/music scientists so I was extremely happy when Michael Cuscuna (one of the founders and owners of the label) took some time out of his schedule to be interviewed.
Enjoy the read:
When you were younger who or what first introduced you to jazz? Was the music apart of your home life?
There wasn’t much music around my house. But I loved R&B and got a learner set of drums at 11. I started to buy Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich and Max Roach records just for the drum solos. Gradually the music around the drum solos grabbed me and I was hooked on jazz.
What was it about the music that led to your “light bulb” moment where you said, “This is what I want to being for the rest of my life?”
There were certain artists like Art Blakey and John Coltrane – the power and majesty of their sounds just made me feel twice as happy and alive as I’d ever been before. I was absolutely consumed by them (and others) and knew I wanted to be close to this music forever.
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The groups that resonated most with me and that I saw as often as possible were Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers (1962-64 sextet edition), the John Coltrane Quartet and the mid-sixties Miles Davis Quintet. Such empathy and trust and a high level of creativity. Perfect bands in every way. As single artists Roland Kirk, Booker Ervin, Clifford Jordan and Lee Morgan were among the most influential and attractive to me.
I read that the saxophone and flute were instruments that you studied. What was it about their sound that drew you to them?
Always loved the sound of the tenor sax, especially that hard vibrato-less Texas sound – Booker Ervin, David Fatheaad Newman, Wilton Felder etc. My saxophone teacher brought in a flute one day and I played a two-octave scale right off the bat. He said I was a natural and insisted I study blues too. Not my favorite instrument for jazz improvisation, but I enjoyed trying to learn it.
How did your radio show at WXPN come about? What was it called?
When I started at the University Of Pennsylvania in 1966, I was looking for some extracurricular activities (not exactly an athlete) so I went to the campus station to see if I could get on the air.
Never intended to do radio professionally although I ended up dong just that. I don’t remember the name of the WXPN jazz show, but I did 2 or 3 of the 5 nights a week. The avant garde was growing in interest and I started a one-hour weekly show on that. Then in 1967, I started to open my ears to the underground in rock (Jefferson Airplane, Country Joe & The Fish etc etc). Three of us convinced WXPN to let us have an underground rock show on FM (this was happening simultaneously around the country) and that started another chapter.
Well, WXPN wasn’t a natural progress into those other jobs but I was meeting people all the time and one thing led to another in all these cases. I would do radio, write articles, produce concerts, help artist had befriended get booking – ANYTHING just to be close to the music.
Around that time did you start to think about what it was that you ultimately wanted to do in the record industry and or within jazz?
Yes, when you are in radio, you tend to get copies of just about everything released. And in jazz, I saw a lot of sameness and wondered why people were conceiving more interesting projects. For instance, I thought Herbie Hancock and Denny Zeitlin would have made a fascinating two-piano album. So idle thoughts developed into a strong desire to produce records.
The first album was one I paid for with my own savings during my second year of college. It was guitarist George Freeman and I did it at Chess’s Ter Mar studios there. The same guy who managed Pat Martino (a friend and neighbor) also managed George and set it up. Of course, I was in over my head but hung in there and basically learned that the role of a producer is to do whatever is needed. If things are going well, be quiet and enjoy it. I tried to sell the master for three years and finally gave it to Delmark in Chicago for what it cost me to make.
My second opportunity was kind accidental. I did an article in Down Beat on Buddy Guy. We became friends and he would always come up to my radio show when he was in Philly and play acoustic guitar and sing in the studio. He knew I wanted to produce. He had one more record left on his Vanguard contract and wanted to get it over with. He was angry at all the Vanguard people so he asked me if I wanted to produce it with him. I gave up Rolling Stones tickets to do it. The album “Hold That Plane” was uneven. I tried to mix and match using some jazz musicians like Gary Bartz and Barry Altschul in the band. Some things worked; others didn’t
When it was time to mix the record, Vanguard wouldn’t pay to fly Buddy in from Chicago so I hatched a plan to get him to New York on someone else’s dime. From the experience of Buddy playing acoustically on my radio show. I asked Buddy if he wanted to do an acoustic record with just Junior Wells on harmonica and Junior Mance on piano. I knew Mance and he had real blues roots and we were friendly. Then I struck a deal with Blue Thumb for the album. That became Buddy and The Juniors.
As your production time began to expand talk about those experiences in the studio. What was the vibe like then?
Every session was a different vibe because of the personalities involved. And that is an important component in producing – you have to hire people who are not just musically compatible, but always will gel as personalities. Tempers, bad moods or disrespect among participants can kill a session faster than a drummer who can’t keep time.
What were the recording studios like at that time? Did you h ave specific ones that you and or the artists/groups liked to work out of?
Most recording studios were on a par at the time. You want a place with a nice warm Neve board, a good selection of mics and a sturdy Ampex or Studor 2” tape machine. But more important, you want an engineer who is musician-friendly and you want a room that sounds good maturally. I loved to use Albert Grossman’s studio Bearsville up in Woodstock and the old 48th Street Hit Factory, owned at the time by Jerry Ragavoy, a great guy and master songwriter. By the mid ‘70s the Record Plants in New York and LA were state of the art and friendly places in which to work. It wasn’t until the early ‘80s that I got into Rudy Van Gelder’s studio which was and still is amazing in every way.
Buddy Guy, Bonnie Raitt, Garland Jeffreys, Dave Brubeck, Oscar Brown, Jr., Art Ensemble Of Chicago, Dexter Gordon, Anthony Braxton, Woody Shaw, Lou Rawls, Terence Blanchard, etc.
Production-wise, what do you think it was about your sound that drew those talents to you? Were you going for a specific aesthetic or would you say that you developed a signature sound?
I don’t think I have a signature sound at all. I think beyond Phil Spector, no producer has a sound. You are a conduit entrusted by the artist and the company paying the bills to make the best possible album possible – hopefully one that will earn money and be great music. The essence of any relationship between artist and producer is developing an relationship of understanding, empathy, respect and trust. In the jazz field, I think friendship and exposure to as many of an artist’s live performances as possible is also essential. How can you know what someone can really do unless you’ve heard him or her do it.
You’ve produced jazz records for a variety of label s inclu ding Atlantic, Muse, Douglas, and Blue Note. In a time where the internet was a far cry away, how were people getti ng the music and how did the labels reach out to you?
At Atlantic, I was a staff producer. With most projects on Muse and Douglas, the label liked me and approached me. With Blue Note in the ‘70s, I had to pitch and beg for everything I wanted to do, but of course when the label was resurrected under Bruce Lundvall in 1984, I worked for the label as a producer, A&R man and reissue producer, And Bruce was great to work for and always open to whatever I wanted to accomplish.
In 1981, Blue Note went totally inactive, but had some under EMI’s ownership two years earlier. Charlie Lourie and I pitched Capitol Records to restart Blue Note with new signings a new reissue series etc. A tiny item on the last page of our proposal with the idea of definitive box sets. The idea came about when I was researching the Blue Note vault for unissued material in the late ‘70s, Among the things I found were about 30 great minutes of unissued Thelonious Monk. It wasn’t enough for an album but I couldn’t stand not getting that material out. Finally it dawned on me that since all the Blue Note Monk was from the 78 era and issued in a very scatter-shot way at the beginning of the 12” LP era, that all of Monk’s Blue Note recordings deserved to be re-transferred and reorganized in chronological order by session. And with the extra 30 minutes, it would fit on 4 LPs. That is how the “complete” box set plan came to me.
Then one night, I started costing the box sets out and it occurred to me that if they were limited edition and sold just by direct mail so that the company would get the full price and not have to deal with returns or unpaid invoices from distributors or record stores, this could be a viable business unto itself. Charlie was game and Mosaic was born!
It always starts with the music, which has to be both great and neglected by the industry. Research follows and visuals are the last piece of the puzzle.
I get the impression that you enjoyed the process. What part(s) of developing these box sets do you most enjoy? How long did it take to produce one set?
The aspect I enjoy most is rescuing great music both sonically and in terms of getting correct dates and personnel and then presenting it in a definitive way. It appeals to the organizational Virgo in me.
In the beginning, how many people did your team consist of besides yourself and Charlie Lourie?
Just Charlie full-time and me part-time (because I was still freelancing) for the first four years. We couldn’t even pay ourselves a salary in those early years. Then Scott Wenzel came on part-time in 1987
Who are some of the artists/groups that Mosaic has focused on?
A lot of Blue Note and Pacific Jazz material because I had already researched that and as many of the masters as we could grab. We did multiple sets on Monk, Chet Baker, Count Basie, Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington and a few others. The sets I am proudest of are the Complete Blue Note Records of Tina Brooks and Of Herbie Nichols because those sets rescued them from obscurity and insured their rightful place in jazz history and introduced their amazing music to new generations
What kind of response did you receive after that first release? From jazz fans? From the industry?
The first was release was three sets: Blue Note Thelonious Monk, Blue Note Albert Ammons and Meade Lux Lewis and Paicific Jazz Gerry Mulligan with Chet Baker. The response from critics was great and we slowly built a faithful audience of buyers. At some point in the early years, the record industry noticed that we were growing and box sets became a classy thing for labels to do.
Talk about some of the problems you guys encountered in your first year of producing the first box sets?
Money, money and money. Basically that’s it. The record business at the time was in very bad shape so we did not getting any resistence from labels about licensing masters to us. That came later when labels started to do complete box sets as well.
Even though we are well into the CD era, every Mosaic set is still packaged in a 12” x 12” box so that we can keep a large-size booklet that will do justice to the photography we find and keep the great essays and detailed discographical data legible. The CDs (and size varies from 3 to 9 discs depending on what the concept of the box dictates) sit in a plastic tray inside the outer box. We try to make a set that is bomplete but also user friendly.
I think Charlie enjoyed it but it didn’t do much for sales and I never take awards or polls seriously. My satisfaction comes from the doing of something – not what it garners later.
What’s next for Mosaic? Are there any other artists/groups that you’re planning to cover? Do you plan on branching out into documentary/film projects?
Documentary films are outside our budget and realm of expertise. We were nicely surprised by the reception that our Complete Arista Anthony Braxton box received so we are doing more projects in that area with a Henry Threadgill box coming shortly and a set of previously unissued Sam Rivers Big Band material next year. Beyond that we will keep mining the vaults neglected pockets of this great music. Scott Wenzel is working on ‘30s Ellington and Lunceford sets at the moment.
For more info on Mosaic Records and the label’s releases visit www.mosaicrecords.com.
Posted on October 19, 2010, in Uncategorized and tagged blue note records, bruce lundvall, charlie lourie, jazz, michael cuscuna, mosaic records, the classics album cover art show. Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.