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Potlatch: Label Profile

img  Tobias Fischer

Founded in 1998 by former Axolotl saxophonist Jacques Oger, French label Potlatch has been at the forefront of free improvisation for more than one and a half decades. Contrary to many other imprints in comparable stylistic waters, Oger's vision has always been to strike a balance between currentness and timelessness, of building a catalogue highlighting the many different twists and turns of the genre as they are happening. After paying homage to some of his favourite performers with an impressive first batch of releases, the label has focused on documenting the gradual development from nervous instrumental exchanges typical of UK improvisation to the slower pacings, insular sound fields and more quiet volumes of the Reductionists; the gradual and radical inclusion of electronic means as well as as the rapprochement of contemporary composition and improvisation in the Wandelweiser albums of 2013. Another red thread running through the catalogue has been Oger's personal passion for solo saxophonists, which has resulted in a string of now classic albums, from Michel Doneda's Anatomie des clefs and Stéphane Rives' Fibres to Bertrand Denzler's Tenor and Sergio Merce's groundbreaking Microtonal Saxophone. What binds all of these together is Oger's unfettered interest in new ideas, new approaches, new techniques and the will to go beyond what has already been done. As much as the label has suffered from the incisive changes in listening and buying behaviour – this dedication will always live on.

What led to your interest in free improvisation?
In my teens, I was lucky enough to become a jazz fan. In the mid sixties, I discovered great jazz musicians such as John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Ornette Coleman, Eric Dolphy, Albert Ayler, Cecil Taylor, Archie Shepp, Don Cherry, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, The Jazz Messengers and many more. I was listening to their records, and was competely amazed by their creativity!
In 1970, I moved to Paris and was able to attend a lot of concerts. At that time Paris was the city of musicians like Anthony Braxton, the Art Ensemble of Chicago and Steve Lacy. I started going to concerts frequently.
In 1975, I began studying and playing tenor saxophone. I met Steve Lacy during a training workshop at a French jazz festival (Chateauvallon near Toulon, in 1977). In 1978, with two friends (Etienne Brunet and Marc Dufourd), we created the trio Axolotl, one of the very first free improvised music group in France. We were influenced by Derek Bailey, Evan Parker, John Zorn, Rova, Henry Kaiser, Alterations. We used to perform a lot in a very important Parisian venue called 28 Rue Dunois and in several French free jazz/experimental music festivals, such as Musique Action at Vandœuvre (Nancy), Sens Music Meeting. And abroad, too, in Italy, Germany, Belgium. We were in touch with a lot of musicians and I played a couple of times with Daunik Lazro, Jacques Berrocal, Joëlle Léandre, Jean-Jacques Avenel among others. The first Axolotl LP was released in 1981, with a sand paper cover. If it had been released some weeks earlier, we would have been on the famous Nurse with Wound list! Our second LP was released in 1983. I gave up playing music in 1985. Mainly because I thought I was not creative enough to carry on in that musical area.
But I’ve always kept permanent contacts with the community of improvisers since the 1980s.


You released your first albums on Potlatch in 1998. What was the scene for jazz and improv  at the time like?
I went out to concerts very often, and to festivals as well: Musique Action in Vandœuvre (Nancy) run by Dominique Répécaud, Les Fruits de Mhère (run by Isabelle Duthoit and Jacques Di Donato), Mulhouse, Densités (Verdun then Fresnes-en-Woëvre run by Xavier Charles and Emmanuelle Pellegrini). So I met a lot of musicians. In the 80s, there were several French musicians collectives too, such as in Toulouse with Michel Doneda, Lê Quan Ninh. When the 28 rue Dunois Parisian venue closed, another one was created: Les Instants Chavirés (in Montreuil, a suburb very close to Paris) in the 90s. And improvisers from the whole world came there to perform, something that has continued until today.
Of course, these clubs and festivals were very important to create a community of listeners interested in this music. Moreover there were some important French magazines (Revue & Corrigée and Improjazz), and the online mail-order website (Metamkine run by Jerôme Noetinger) where you could find every recording you were searching for.


Many performers and listeners of improvised music still swear by live gigs as the ideal situation to experience the music in. As someone who runs a label, what's your take on that?
Listening to a recording and attending a concert are two different things, of course. And a concert recording on CD is something different from the concert itself. Both are important, but different experiences. I am convinced that home listening is something essential. Repeated listening is necessary to get inside any music. It’s the same experience with photography. You can feel completely different things when looking at a picture and when seeing the same landscape. These experiences feed each other. When you look at a picture/photo, when you listen to a live recording, you see or hear different things than the original object. And there is a feedback process between the two experiences.
We are in an area of music where you need to spend time to feel the music, to understand it, to find out its specific qualities. The first time I was exposed to Derek Bailey’s music (it was in a Parisian record shop about in 1974/75), I didn’t like it. But a friend lent me an Incus LP, and little by little, I grew fond of it, and his music made sense to me. Later, when Derek came to Paris, I was prepared to hear him. It can work the other way round, too, of course.


One of the early reviews of a Potlatch CD regarded you as the "French equivalent to someone like Incus, Matchless or Emanem in the UK". What, if any, were some of your influences in terms of record companies?
I was a bit unsatisfied about other French labels’ productions. Few of them were involved in free improvised music and I wanted to document French improvisers, particularly the younger generation in a better way. At that time I was impressed by a lot of foreign record labels: Incus, FMP, Metalanguage, Parachute, Emanem, Matchless, Hat Hut.
In 1998, when my two kids had become a little older, I thought it was a good opportunity to do something else in my free time. I felt it necessary to create a new label to promote some musicians that I enjoyed a lot and who were, in my opinion, not known enough, even in France. And above all, there was the Internet starting and growing very fast! It was very easy to establish contacts with musicians, distributors, consumers (via mailing lists, mail orders, boards) all over the world. If the Internet hadn’t existed, I would probably have never created a label.


How did you establish contact with the artists for your first four releases?
I personally knew most of them - I used to meet them when I was a musician with Axolotl, and later at gigs. So I imagine it was not too difficult to convince them to release on Potlatch. Maybe I explained them that they could rely on me because I knew how to “address the market”; I had contacts with distributors, I knew journalists/reviewers in France and abroad. The improv world is a small but strong network, and, as a label, you need to know it and belong to it if you want to go further.
From its earliest days, Potlatch put out CDs with Derek Bailey, Michel Doneda, Fred Van Hove, Joëlle Léandre and Daunik Lazro, and within a couple of years I added names like Steve Lacy, John Butcher, Evan Parker and Keith Rowe.
I was a big fan of Derek Bailey, I discovered his music in the mid-1970s. I had the opportunity to record him live in 1997 with Joelle Léandre at Les Instants Chavirés, the most important venue for improvised music in the Parisian area. Later, Lazro asked me to release some live material with Zingaro. About Fred Van Hove: Axolotl played once at the festival he was running in Antwerpen (Belgium). So I was very glad to record him when he played in Paris.
I was also also able to record other musicians live at great festivals such as Butcher/Charles/Dorner (Contest of Pleasure) at Météo festival in Mulhouse.


Michel Doneda's Anatomie des clefs was the first of a string of solo saxophone recordings to be featured on Potlatch. Can you tell me a bit about what you appreciate about the album and the others (by artists like Stéphane Rives or Bertrand Denzler) which would follow, please?
As a former musician, I gave a kind of priority to my beloved instrument: the saxophone. I think most of the greatest saxophonists of improvised music are on Potlatch. Improvisers on saxophone have changed the sound of the instrument, performing a new music, introducing new languages thanks to amazing extended techniques and continuous breathing. About Doneda (Anatomie des clefs), I first met him in 1978 and his solo was recorded in southern France (where he was living) in 1998 by Jean Pallandre. Michel’s music is always challenging. He developed a truly personal language based on breath, and he is always going beyond the boundaries. His playing is very original, completely different from Evan Parker’s.
Stéphane brought something completely new, too, certainly on the soprano. It’s something about textures, layers of sounds and his playing is more static. I am very proud to have contributed to his notoriety.
Bertrand has created a very original language on the tenor as well. His collaboration with Trio Sowari is fantastic, and the way he brillantly interferes with sounds of Burkhard Beins and Phil Durrant. His solo CD is amazing too, when he works on tiny, almost imperceptible harmonics and multiphonics.
I could also mention Sergio Merce who has completely modified the instrument by withdrawing the original mechanisms and keys and replacing them with water, gas and compressed air taps!


The first half of the '00 years were marked by the emergence of Onkyo, Berlin Reductionism and what was referred to as EAI. Potlatch was associated with these directions and did feature them, but never in a dogmatic way, I feel. How would you describe your personal interest in them? How important are tags such as these for selling the music – and how much can they hurt the music?
I was very interested in these different trends emerging at the end of the 90s. First of all, a lot of people (re)discovered AMM in the 90s, in concert and through their recordings. They had a big influence on many musicians and maybe it was a major change in free improvised music at that time. It opened many new directions, mainly in Japan, Germany, UK but in France too.
I remember attending a concert at that time with Radu Malfatti, Phil Durrant and Thomas Lehn at Nancy and being very impressed. Over the same period, I had contacts with these guys from Berlin (Ignaz Schick, Axel Doerner) and I was very glad to put out the first Phosphor CD.
But I was never attached to any tag. I understand that we need new vocabulary to describe new trends in music. But I don’t like when we put a label on it, as if improvised music were a fixed genre. Of course, it’s not. I'm attracted by musicians who try to change their ideas, their ways of playing by experimenting with new things, new areas.


Potlatch seems less occupied by the concerns of being 'contemporary'. What are some of the things you will look for in a release? 
Of course, I hope to belong to my current epoch. So the Potlatch catalogue reveals the evolution of the musicians in the experimental field.
I always try to put out something original. I want to offer this kind of specificity to the listener.
Of course originality can be found in various options, such as an unpublished association of
musicians (Parker-Rowe). I always tried to find originality in the music itself. Since 2002, my choices were more and more orientated towards new musical realms focusing on more spacious forms of music with new textures, a slower pace, the presence of silence, a preference for collective sound rather than chatty pin-pong playing based on energy and spontaneity …
And I was mainly interested in the confrontation between acoustic instruments and electronics. It’s a big challenge. And I like musicians facing new challenges, which is a great dimension of improvised music. Trio Sowari perfectly meets this target. It’s something very important on my agenda. Another challenge is the capacity of musicians to improvise inside large groups. Phosphor is probably the best example.
I like musicians who are obsessed with details. Quality is often hidden in very small details. Such as in Bertrand Denzler’s solo (just give a relisten to the very first minutes of Tenor, there are some amazing tiny things).
I also try to select musicians who are not well-known but who deserve a wider recognition, as I did with Sophie Agnel, Frédéric Blondy, Stéphane Rives, Christine Abdelnour Sehnaoui, Sergio Merce, Marc Baron, Hans Tammen.
Sometimes I talk with musicians and ask them to do something and later they send me something they have worked on. For instance the Lucio Capece solo, or the John Butcher/Christoph Kurzmann duo.
Sometimes I “discover” on the spot new combinations of musicians, and I am convinced to record them. That was the case with Trio Sowari (Burkhard Beins, Phil Durrant, Bertrand Denzler). I attended their first gig ever (it was in Paris), we were less than 10 people in the audience that evening. Two days later, they were recording Three Dances! Same thing happened with Abdelnour Sehnaoui / Pascal Battus duo, Murayama duos with Guionnet and Rives.
And I must add that I receive a lot of spontaneous requests from many musicians. But I don’t give my agreement very often. With some exceptions nevertheless, for instance with Stengam, the Cor Fuhler piano solo.


To you, what have been some of the highlights of the years since 2006, when the flow of releases slowed down somewhat? How do you see the current situation – it appears you've only recently released some of the strongest albums ever on the imprint ...
I believe that, one more time, we are at a turning point in the evolution of improvised music. I am more and more interested in the interactions between improvisers and some forms of contemporary music. I see crossed influences between improvisation and certain trends in contemporary music such as Wandelweiser, which is by the way a consequence of Cage, Fluxus experiences. For instance, the Dedalus group who performed Beuger, Frey, Pisaro compositions are very interested in the idea of improvisation and the way they play is close to some improvisers. Richard Pinnell wrote interesting things on his blog:

«The music of the Wandelweiser collective has many similarities with improvisation, and with more recent, texturally focused improvisation in particular. The compositions of Malfatti and Frey, alongside those of their associates Antoine Beuger, Michael Pisaro, Manfred Werder and others almost always allow a degree of interpretation to be made by the musicians as the score is realised as a performance.»

Another trail/opportunity is the influence of field recording, new electronics, drone music, noise music. I can see these influences on many musicians: Jean-Luc Guionnet, Seiji Murayama, Marc Baron, Lucio Capece, Sergio Merce to name but a few. I am very interested in all these new trends.


Over the past decade, there have been some incisive changes to the marketplace. What has the effect on sales figures been like for Potlatch? Are you observing a lack of enthusiasm for this music or, conversely, a new generation of excited listeners?
Yes sales are down, more and more. But paradoxically, there are more listeners in concerts than ever, only they buy CDs less and less. Apart from the aficionados who act as collectors, I think many people are afraid to listen to this kind of music at home. They prefer to listen to easier music, or YouTube ... or LPs ... It’s not a good thing.


Why is it not a good thing?
Unfortunately, I think that less and less people listen to music in a good listening environment at home. Young people (I mean under 30 at least) listen to streaming music on their computer or they'll use their smartphone with headphones. I am critical of this development.
At first I didn’t like mp3 releases because ´their audio quality was too bad. Things have changed now thanks to higher quality formats. But I am not sure that a lot of people have the right equipment to listen to downloaded music.
The main question is: what is the interest, the meaning of a label? I believe that a label gives notoriety and credibility to young musicians who don't yet have it. In the past, there was a kind of ecosystem which worked very well: the recordings on a label, the reviews in the written specialised press, the radio broadcasts. It worked very well for free jazz, and for European free improvised music.
And now, with the Internet and downloaded music, this ecosystem has deeply changed. I am very skeptical about music promotion through social networks (Facebook) and I am afraid that people read blogs less and less. But I believe that if a musician is not well known, he needs some credibility. And a label can bring it to him. I think it worked that way when I released Stéphane Rives’ solo. He was not very well known at that time. I guess he gained some recognition with Fibres. Had this been  possible if it had only been available as a download on Soundcloud? I am not sure. I do hope Potlatch can continue bringing this credibility.
Streaming and downloading is a new model, something completely different. Musicians can have their own platform and sell their music as a download to everyone on this planet. It’s OK, I don’t mind it. If they can reach a large audience and earn some money, it’s great. But I am not sure that a new musician can get notoriety with platforms like SoundCloud. Recently, a very well-known musician told me that he sold an out of print album only 6 times in 2 years on iTunes!
And if it’s more and more difficult to distribute CDs and sell all over the world, maybe we will be forced to give up pressing CDs and make something else. I don’t know.
And putting out LPs? No! Never! I do like LPs (I have a large collection of jazz LPs). But it’s too expensive and too hard to ship. And now when you ask a printing plant to make a LP, production schedules are longer and longer, six months sometimes … It’s stupid.


How do you see the future of the label?
This future doesn’t depend on me. There are two main parameters I have to take into account.
First, the evolution of music. We always need something different, something new. I agree with that. My responsibility is to understand what the forces are, the vehicles of this evolution. It’s not so easy. But it’s what I like to do: listening to new things, new projects made by musicians. For instance, my last release of Jean-Luc Guionnet and Éric La Casa (November 2014) is something very different from anything I already did or heard till now. I do hope that I can have the opportunity to encounter and understand these kinds of gems in the next few years.
The second parameter is the technology. With streaming, CDs sales are slumping. It’s hard to maintain a good standard of quality with regards to productions. Maybe I will have to set up something with downloading. But, as you understand, I would prefer to stay attached to the CD format.

Potlatch Label Profile Interview by Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Potlatch