Fans of vintage jazz recordings often lament that while there's no lack of CD reissues by the likes of Miles, Mingus and Monk, a wealth of albums by lesser names will never know the thrill of a digital resurrection.
Enter Donald Elfman. Half of a two-person operation that includes label coordinator Naomi Yoshii, Elfman is director of jazz for Manhattan's Koch imprint.
"For a lot of people like me, who are in their 40s and 50s, many interesting recordings from our past simply aren't available on CD," Elfman said. Indeed, for the new or casual enthusiast without a working turntable and the leisure time to spend burrowing through used record shops, scores of recordings would remain buried treasures without his efforts.
In addition to releasing its own recordings, Koch Jazz handles the U.S. manufacturing, promotion and distribution of the German Enja label and has licensing arrangements with labels such as BMG.
Elfman has also hooked up Koch Jazz with Rhino Records, the licensing agent for the classic Atlantic Jazz back catalog, Vee Jay Records and the late jazz critic Ralph J. Gleason's "Jazz Casual" recordings.
"The recordings available through Rhino appealed to me personally," Elfman said, "because they reflect a different era." Koch Jazz has released more than 60 reissues since early last year, beginning with an impressive batch of Atlantic albums.
"We used the HDCD [High Definition Compatible Digital] process for the first 33 Atlantic reissues," Elfman said. "It's expensive, but we wanted to pay special attention to the first batch." Gene Paul, who digitally remastered them, worked at Atlantic during the '70s and was able to go into the vaults and get the original reel-to-reel masters.
The new HDCD releases include the 1965 album Arranged/Played/Composed by Jack Montrose, featuring "April's Fool," which captures the tenor saxophonist in a quintet that included drummer Shelly Manne and baritone saxophonist Bob Gordon; the Red MitchellHarold Land Quintet's 1961 Hear Ye! with trumpeter Carmell Jones, which includes "Catacomb"; the 1962 [Kenny] Clarke–[Francy] Boland Big Band album Handle With Care, featuring "Sonor"; and trumpeter Freddie Hubbard's 1970 album The Black Angel, with Carlos "Patato" Valdéz on congas and maracas.
Big sellers in the Koch Jazz reissue series include recordings by Gary Burton, Randy Weston, Clifford Jordan, Von Freeman and Coleman Hawkins and Milt Jackson.
Lost gems by lesser-known artists include alto saxophonist-turned-pianist Frank Strozier's Cool Calm & Collected. "One of the things I feel fortunate to be able to do," Elfman said, "is to find things like this and draw attention to underrated musicians."
Koch Jazz masters the recordings and creates the artwork. Rhino Records then manufactures the product and sends it back to Koch for sales and distribution. "It works great," said Mark Pinkus, vice president and manager of special projects at Rhino Records, "because they have the enthusiasm and expertise, and are terrific at selling the more obscure titles through the outlets they've developed. They've got great distribution, and their numbers are good."
According to Elfman, the company sells between 1,000 and 2,000 copies of each title and usually holds each license for three or four years. "We don't have the clout of the big companies," Elfman said, "but we also don't have the expectations."
What sort of material does Elfman try to access through Rhino? "Since none of these releases are gigantic sellers, I try to pick a balance of things ... both records that were commercial in their day as well as noncommercial releases." The latter, he explained, can be more challenging, less immediately enjoyable and therefore sell commensurately less.
Future Koch Jazz releases include a dozen albums documenting Gleason's famous "Jazz Casual" show. Each disc contains two half-hour performances from the show, plus short interviews conducted by Gleason. Artists in the series include Jim Hall, Cannonball Adderly and Bola Seta.