Zebra Records to the Rescue


Jazz Talk
commentary by Mark Ruffin

One day late last month, I read a radio industry publication article on who invented smooth jazz. I had to laugh out loud, and regular readers of JazzUSA may know why. Those who don’t should link back to our January issue. That’s where my illustrious colleague Sidney Bechet-Mandela and I shared our views on what’s wrong with jazz. His chief complaints were aimed at record companies, mine were laid at the feet of radio.

In last month’s JazzUSA, saxophonist Marion Meadows voiced his anger at jazz radio and the list of jazz stars who are voicing complaints is growing.

I won’t rehash my complaints, but I will tell you who invented the term “smooth jazz” at the end of this article. As for who invented the format, in 1998, that’s pretty much akin to standing up and shouting to the world, “Yes it was me who gave you oatmeal.” Part of my summation in that article was that the radio format was an evolution, the beginning of which was a growth period for contemporary electric jazz music. It’s now stagnated because of those very same radio people who are clamoring for respect.

Also, as I stated in that article, my opinions in this matter have some weight behind them because, except for a two week period in 1988, I’ve been employed in jazz radio continuously since August, 1980. Which gets me to the meat of the matter at hand.

If electric jazz is to progress to another artistic level, that vision is going to have to come mostly from record companies. Unless something develops in cyberspace, forget radio. And no matter how advanced the musician is, he music won’t get heard until a record executive gets behind him. But, electric music will always be acoustic jazz’ bastardized orphan, as long as those companies continue to react to airplay and the next projected yuppie trend giving to them by a so-called jazz radio exec who ten years ago was wondering what album-rock station was going to hire them.

There are a number of bright record executives I like, and who I think have the ears to recognize the difference between super-market speaker fodder and inventive music. Unfortunately, some of those have to sell us some shit in order to grunt out a work of art. One man, who I’ve never known to compromise, is Ricky Schultz, president of Zebra Records.

I got Zebra’s latest releases the same day I read that joke of an article. Listening to the two excellent albums, “World Tour” by Joe Zawinul & The Zawinul Syndicate and Eric Essix’ “Small Talk” sent me down memory lane.

My oldest professional acquaintances in radio are record promotion people, because they tend to stay in one city, while radio slaves are as nomadic as gypsies. The first three promotion people I met in the early 80’s were Sherry Winston, who then worked for Arista and is now known for her flute playing, Dr. Jazz, who is still an independent promoter out of Detroit, and Schultz, who was working for Warner Brothers.

I loved talking music with these folks, and even back then I noticed Schultz’ bent towards the electronic, plus he was working some killer acts including the Yellowjackets and Pat Metheny. (This was back when ECM was distributed by Warners.)

Schultz has had a great career in a very hostile and volatile line of work. After Warner Brother, Schultz worked for MCA. It was Schultz and not Tommy LiPuma who got that megla-corporation to re-activate the Impulse catalog. This was also the period when Schultz started Zebra.

The first incarnation produced for me some of the best new faces in contemporary jazz in the 80’s and some of the best music. None of my absolute favorites are still making solo records, but the albums by in the mid 80’s he was making friends. This is a partial list of musicians on those two albums; Jaco Pastorius (in his prime), Herbie Hancock, Michael Brecker, Bob James, Wayne Shorter, Marcus Miller, Toots Thielmans, Ursula Dudziak, Michael Urbaniak, Steve Gadd, Peter Erkine and many more.

The music made by Bernsen and Perri borders on the spectacular and re-release can’t be too far behind. Until then contemporary jazz fans should be thankful for Zebra’s current life as we head into the next century.

Joe Zawinul is already in the next decade. From the soul/jazz classic “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” to the groundbreaking fusion that was Weather Report, he’s always been ahead of us and that’s still true. Without fear of successful contradiction, I can easily say that Weather Report has never made a live album better than the two-disc set that makes up “World Tour.” The same can be said for any Weather Report studio album that was made after Jaco Pastorius left the band.

Besides, Zawinul, this record is fueled by percussionist/vocalist Manolo Badrena and bassist Victor Bailey, both members of the two major incarnations of Weather Report. Cameroonian bassist Richard Bona makes for a major sub on the tracks that Bailey lays out.

Bona also sings as does Badrena and Pape Abdou Seck, and all three are outstanding and marks this effort as truly one of the finest mix of world music and contemporary jazz. Of course, Badrena sang with Weather Report, but then it seemed incidental, here it’s vital. The rhythms and textures range from deep and solemn to rich and tense as expected from Zawinul’s layered keyboard style. But from those keyboards also comes a stark use of spoken word tapes that changes mood, and snakes in and out of the harmonies around it.

The music was culled from a year- long tour that is listed with the album annotation. The list is more proof that contemporary jazz does seem to be artistically healthy in Europe as out of over 100 dates, less than ten were in the United States.

Depending on where you’re from, guitarist Eric Essix is a newcomer. In Alabama, he’s a Hall of Famer, being the youngest musician ever inducted into Birmingham’s famous institution that includes the likes of Sun Ra, Nat Cole, Lionel Hampton and others. In L.A., Essix may be known for the two albums he released on that city’s now defunct contemporary jazz label, Nova Records.

“Small Talk” is Essix’ fifth album, but his first with major distribution. It is tasteful NAC radio music and progressive smooth jazz fans should have no problem with the easy melodies and the quality playing. Ironically, the opening track “Street Scene” sounds a lot like the meeting of two late well-known NAC stars, Zachary Breaux and Art Porter.

Both Breaux and Porter were those rare electric jazz musicians who were respected by their acoustic peers because of their chops. That is usually the criteria that separate quality contemporary jazz stars from those playing instrumental pop. Essix has the sure-handed quality. He also has a the knack for a catchy melody which shows in on many tracks, but particularly on the heavy groover “For Real,” and the Kevin Eubanks influenced “No Matter What,” featuring vocalist CeCe McNear.

Essix’s signing to Zebra is a testament to Schultz commitment not to sell shit to make art. Part of his roster is definitely radio friendly, but they’re all artists who can romp on “Giant Steps” and “Cherokee” at 100 bpm as easily as they can lay down a slow funk groove to solo on. Zebra artists Lee Oskar, Rob Mullins, and Brian Bromberg and Zachary Breaux (a posthumous release is forthcoming) are all quality players making quality music.

It’s the other part of Zebra’a roster that give old-fusion heads cause to celebrate. In addition to Zawinul is the group Jazz Is Dead featuring Billy Cobham and Alphonso Johnson, French guitarist Pierre Bensusan and where else could Scott Henderson & Tribal Tech go and really find their records in the stores.

Most record companies invested in NAC or smooth jazz also have a roster of acoustic jazz acts and some don’t even have that. None, like Zebra has a number of acts who are looking beyond the current radio trend that is dragging the quality of music down the Muzak tube.

By the way, none of those guys who are claiming they invented smooth jazz actually came up with the term. It was at one of the leading stations in the format though when then WNUA announcer Denise Jordan-Walker was starting a backsell and casually opened the microphone and said “That was some smooth jazz on WNUA from?.”

The Music Director and the Program Director at the time were two of those guys patting themselves on the back. Michael Fischer was the MD and he ran into the studio after the mic was off and screamed at Denise for describing the music that way. At the time he and the PD, Bob O’Connor didn’t want any descriptions of the music. That may sound ludicrous, but there are worse examples, like at one point WNUA staffers were not allowed to talk about the musician’s background, and solos were edited out of songs frequently because management was convinced that the audience didn’t want to hear any improvisation.

Two weeks later, at a staff meeting, O’Connor announced that he’s come up with a new station slogan, WNUA went from the tag line “Music For A New Age” to “Smooth Jazz.” I know all of this because I was there and Denise and I looked at each other and shook our heads. The station never copyrighted the slogan, thinking that the slogan would spread.

Unfortunately it did.