With the music industry in perpetual free fall and the very idea of “record labels” shifting constantly, mini-labels continue to sprout. In Boston, the jazz and improvisation scene has given birth to a hardy handful of artist-run imprints: guitarist Eric Hofbauer’s Creative Nation Music, bassist Ehud Ettun’s Internal Compass, and saxophonist Jorrit Dijkstra and pianist Pandelis Karayorgis’s Driff Records. On June 19 and 20, Driff presents its third festival at the Lily Pad, this one being the first to run two evenings (sponsored by Cambridge Arts and the Mass. Cultural Council).
It would be easy to see these labels as vanity projects; Driff, for instance, only puts out records involving the music of Dijkstra and Karayorgis. But it would be more accurate to describe them as representing communities of artists. Generally, producing live shows is as important as releasing CDs.
Dijkstra and Karayorgis were motivated to create Driff for the same reason that prompts a lot of musicians to start their own ventures: frustration.
“It was becoming increasingly difficult to find labels for your music,” Dijkstra says during an interview with him and Karayorgis at the 1369 Coffee House in Central Square. “It’s so hard to break out.”
Adds Karayorgis, “The deals became harder and harder, and the delays became longer and longer.” And with little compensation from the labels, it was also difficult just to break even on any project.
Creating their own imprint seemed like a good alternative. “It’s not that hard to do it yourself,” says Dijkstra. “You just have to have a plan, and make it look nice.”
That “look,” they realized, should be consistent to establish a visual identity for the label. Using as models the Swiss label Hat Art, Portugal’s Clean Feed, and saxophonist Michael Moore’s ’90s Ramboy imprint, they came up with a logo and began working with designers and visual artists they knew, who created original drawings and artworks to grace the attractive gatefold digipak CD cases.
The two have common interests: Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk, Eric Dolphy, Lennie Tristano, Lee Konitz. Karayorgis, 53, came to the New England Conservatory from Athens in 1985. Dijkstra, 49, attended NEC on a Fulbright Fellowship in 1998. His roots were in the vibrant Amsterdam scene, where figures like drummer Han Bennink and pianist Misha Mengelberg were pervasive influences. While Karayorgis generally hews to progressive American post-bop, Dijkstra has a taste for European experimentalism with a dash of electronics (in addition to alto saxophone, he plays the analog electronic wind instrument the Lyricon).
But perhaps the key inspiration that both shared was saxophonist and composer Joe Maneri, who taught for years at NEC and was a central figure in microtonal composition (he died in 2009). In Maneri, they heard the openness of free jazz, but also a disciplined approach to structure. It was “fast-paced,” says Karayorgis, with lots of quick changes, but also “very concrete ideas, and none of the half-hour solos” of some free jazz. What also impressed them was Maneri’s delicate phrasing, and the careful listening that went on in his ensembles.
That disciplined approach to freedom is one of the hallmarks of the Driff catalog. The quartet Bolt — with Dijkstra, Hofbauer, cellist Junko Fujiwara, and drummer Eric Rosenthal — specializes in spontaneous improvisations that have the integrity of four-way compositions, each musician listening and reacting. Their CD “Shuffle,” from last year, assembled 19 pieces with a total duration of 47:28 — the longest 8:09, the shortest 30 seconds — and, as the title implies, the listener was encouraged to mix the sequence to his or her own liking.
Which isn’t to say there isn’t plenty of hard-blowing swing on Driff. On two quintet records, “Circuitous” and “Afterimage,” Karayorgis puts reed players Dave Rempis and Keefe Jackson out front, digging into his odd-angled, Monkish tunes. Dijkstra’s duo record with trombonist Jeb Bishop, “1000 Words,” mixes tight, boppish verse-chorus song structures (“Duo Stukje”) and textural experiments (“Drainpipe”).
The latter suggests another of Dijkstra’s mentors at NEC, Steve Lacy (1934-2004), who showed the younger player that “you could write music about anything” — whether it was another musician, like Ravel or Ben Webster, a painting by Mondrian, or a duck on a pond. A tribute band, the Whammies (including Dijkstra, Karayorgis, and Bennink) debuted on Driff in 2012 with “Play the Music of Steve Lacy,” and has followed up with two subsequent volumes.
In the works from Driff are new recordings from large ensemble Bathysphere (with compositions by the label partners) and Matchbox (with Dijkstra, Karayorgis, bassist Nate McBride, and drummer Curt Newton), both of which will be featured at Driff Fest. (As a prelude of sorts, Bathysphere plays the Lily Pad May 31.) Meanwhile, three out-of-town guests will join the locals: trombonist Bishop, trumpeter Taylor Ho Bynum, and saxophonist Tony Malaby.
As for soliciting recordings from other musicians, the duo demurs. “Then people would start sending us stuff and we’d have to do all the stupid work,” says Dijkstra. Part of the goal of running their own record label, he says, is to do “no more stupid stamp-licking than necessary.”
Moroccan-born guitarist Albare comes to the Regattabar on June 3 with a quintet that hits the jazz-rock side of Afro-Latin rhythms. The band includes pianist Axel Tosca Laugart, bassist Yunior Terry, drummer Pablo Bencid, and percussionist Luisito Quintero (617-395-7757, www.regattabarjazz.com). . . . Guitarist and singer John Pizzarelli is special guest of Newton’s New Philharmonia Orchestra on June 12 at the First Baptist Church in Newton Centre, with Bo Winiker conducting Pizzarelli’s charts for the big ensemble (617-527-9717; www.newphil.org). . . . Iconic alto saxophonist Lee Konitz, now 87, returns to the Regattabar on June 13 with his superb quartet: pianist Dan Tepfer, bassist Jeremy Stratton, and drummer George Schuller (617-395-7757, www.regattabarjazz.com). . . . The exciting young bassist and composer Petros Klampanis celebrates the release of “Minor Dispute” at the Regattabar on June 16, with his band: guitarist Gilad Hekselman, pianist Jean-Michel Pilc, and percussionist John Hadfield.Jon Garelick can be reached at email@example.com.