Zoho Music is a record label that you’ve never heard of. Which isn’t surprising. But it is a shame.
Think about the numerous Golden Ages of Jazz and you’ll invariably start mentioning all the innovative artists who propelled the genre into musical history. Any mention of famous record labels becomes almost secondary—Miles Davis delving into modal jazz in the Columbia Studios, recording engineer Rudy Van Gelder sitting in the Blue Note studios and making sure all those classic recordings sounded just so. Think about Riverside’s relationship with Thelonious Monk and how John Coltrane put Impulse! on the map right from their inception. Think about Mingus and Atlantic, Verve and Herbie Hancock, and Savoy and Bird. Those were the days, right?Today’s contemporary jazz scene is a little different. Outside of mainstream jazz performers such as Diana Krall and Wynton Marsalis, most of today’s contemporary jazz releases comes from small independent labels, record companies you might not have heard of such as Jumo, Kabockie, Soundbrush, Height Advantage, Jazzheads, Mandala and Inner Circle. I chose those specific labels because I literally grabbed a handful of CDs from my review pile and read off those names. I hadn’t heard of any of these labels before this exact moment.
Presumably, the labels have gotten small because contemporary jazz has gotten small. You’ll often hear about the slow demise of contemporary jazz in the United States, possibly even from me just a couple of years ago. (I also said the same thing about classical music way back in February 2007, in a Vinyl Anachronist column for Perfect Sound Forever.) Nobody challenged me on the classical front, mostly because I was regurgitating the lamentations of a dozen other music writers. When I mentioned the paucity of notable contemporary jazz in a review of the Todd Hunter Trio’s Eat, Drink, Play for Positive Feedback in May of 2016, I made the following dumb assertion:
“Like most audiophiles who are into jazz, I tend to reach way back into history for my sonic fixes. I’m talking late ’50s and early ’60s, of course, and maybe a few Three Blind Mice titles from the mid-’70s just to mix things up. The idea of choosing a modern jazz piece as a reference, say something that was recorded after I graduated from junior high school, just doesn’t seem to be in the cards—although I am pretty fond of the FIM remaster of Happy Coat from the Shoba Osabe Trio, which was recorded in 2004. But that’s a rarity, if not quite a lone exception.”
I feel like a grade-A dumbass for saying that now, but it led me down an incredibly worthwhile road. A couple of publicists and a few independent record labels took that statement as a challenge and started flooding my mailbox with dozens of new releases every month. I know, what a terrible and unfair problem to have! Over the last two years, I’ve been treading water in a perpetually churning sea of contemporary jazz titles. There is so much of it, and so much of it is truly outstanding. I’ve had to slowly withdraw my original asinine claim.
One record label, however, has really captured my attention. Zoho, based nearby in Millwood, New York, has that singular and focused feel of a jazz label that has a common theme and unusually high standards. I can usually spot a Zoho Music title in my review pile instantly—they tend to use the same fonts over simple yet dynamic photos, usually of the artist. It’s almost as if Zoho is a modern, hipper version of the Time-Life Series of books and LPs. The branding on these releases are front and center, which is fine since Zoho is putting out such a consistently fine product.
The Zoho albums have a few more important distinctions:
- There’s always a cultural or geographic intersection as a theme. Zoho releases are often about a musician from one country who spent considerable time playing jazz in another country, and how the two cultures informed his or her musical style. It’s about the clashing of cultures in the service of art—in this way, Zoho is the Peter Weir of jazz record labels.
- There’s always an adventurous spirit at hand. Zoho isn’t putting out a lot of experimental or free jazz per se, but their releases aren’t necessarily aimed at beginners. There is a fluid beauty to most of these titles, but there’s always another layer of the onion that only a few fans will recognize and appreciate.
- The sound quality is uniformly excellent. This is particularly good news for audiophiles—especially ones who are so grounded in the past that they’re just waiting for the next batch of Blue Note reissues before they buy any more jazz. Zoho releases almost always sound great. This is where we can lay all the laurels at the feet of the record label principles and not necessarily the performers. Somebody at the console cares deeply about this stuff.
This month, like many months, I’ve received three new titles on CD from Zoho: Michael Sarian & The Chabones’ Leon (ZM201806), Pedro Giraudo & the WDR Big Band’s An Argentinian in New York (ZM201804) and Dongfeng Liu’s China Caribe (ZM201805).Michael Sarian & the Chabones
Leon, which of course is Spanish for lion, is based upon some self-deprecating humor and a note of assertion. Horn player Michael Sarian, who hails from Argentina, has long red hair and a huge bushy beard. In his home country, he explains, gingers are often considered bad luck. He has often been called chabon or lunfardo, two Argentine words for “dude” or “schmuck.” But the idea behind Leon is simple. “Yes, I have long red hair and a beard,” he explains, “but the lion speaks more to my, or anyone else’s, appearance. It speaks to anyone who’s ever felt ‘less than’ for any reason, because they too can be a lion.”
Quite appropriately, the music here is fierce and strong and imaginative. It’s also quite varied in tone and tempo. Sarian and the Chabones (sax players Jim Piela and Evan Francis, trombonist Elad Cohen, pianist Michael Verselli, bassist Trevor Brown and drummer Josh Bailey) don’t lock into a groove and stay there over the course of these six tracks. Each song tells a separate story, which requires a certain member of the ensemble to take a turn out front. “No 3” lets Bailey spread out over his kit and explore while the others “hold out chords voiced without the third.” “Casquito” translates as “little helmet,” which refers to Sarian’s bowl haircut as a child and how he had to endure even more taunts. His horn, therefore, tells the story.
The entire album is inspired by these little tales about growing up in Argentina and learning to stand out from the crowd without fear, which is perhaps why this music sounds both specific and loose. “Different is good,” Sarian explains. “But it takes a little courage sometimes, and what’s a lion without some courage?”
Conductor and arranger Pedro Giraudo’s country of origin is, again, Argentina. (Now that I think about it, Zoho is very South America-centric at times.) But he’s taken that clash of cultures to heart. He’s employed Germany’s WDR Big Band to record six of his compositions in front of a live audience in Koln—compositions that describe his experiences playing jazz in New York City over the last 20 years. The reason for this unusual mix was purely musical, as “the band was on fire from the moment the concert began.” He was also appreciative of the fact that he wasn’t required, as usual, to play the bass during the concert. He was able to focus entirely on leading this energetic and daring big band through a very personal account of his jazz career.
Each track focuses around very different ideas that have persisted through Giraudo’s life. “Mentiras Piadosos,” which translates to “white lies,” involves his shock at a psychiatrist’s suggestion that “it is impossible to be a functioning member of society without sometimes lying.” “Chicharitta” is a tribute to Osvaldo Pugliese, a vital part of the development of tango in the 20thcentury. These themes aren’t afraid to get musically complex—“Lapidario,” which means “merciless,” is an Argentine idiom that involves using cutting and hurtful remarks toward someone. Two disparate themes are used in this piece: one is quick and aggressive, while the other is more nostalgic and evokes an older and more nostalgic meaning of the term.
Big band jazz is usually about precision—all those individuals need to meld into one big, chugging machine for it all to sound right. So if you’re into Teutonic stereotypes, you might imagine that a German big band is even more on the ball. Many of these passages are both chaotic and passionate, and this band does a fantastic job in keeping these tunes both organized and meaningful.
For me, Dongfeng Liu’s China Caribe is the star of the bunch. It exploits my biggest thrill in jazz—an unusual or exotic instrument as lead. In this case, pianist Liu brings in several traditional Asian instruments such as the morin khuur, the ruan, the Mongolian horsehead fiddle and even the rare and incredible Mongolian throat singing. What’s amazing about China Caribe, as you might surmise from the name, is this project as far more than introducing Asian musical instruments into a jazz setting. Liu’s intention is to meld these exotic instruments with distinctive Latin and Caribbean motifs. The liner notes mention that in the 1860s, “Havana boasted the largest Chinese population in the Western Hemisphere.” That’s Liu’s theme, and he is faithful to it.