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Nashville Scene New Directions

Locally based classical label gears up jazz division

By Ron Wynn

MARCH 15, 1999:  Though major labels like RCA/BMG and Sony have operated jazz and classical divisions for decades, it's unusual these days for an independent company that has made its mark in one genre to launch an operation in another. If Blue Note started recording piano concertos or symphony recitals, the response would be at best befuddlement.

Yet that's pretty much what the Franklin-based Naxos Music is doing. The nearly 11-year-old company, which relocated here last year from Hong Kong, has amassed a glittering international reputation for its budget line of first-rate classical recordings. The label stepped into the jazz waters in 1997, and after some early missteps is steadily building its roster and raising its jazz profile.

Much of the credit goes to Mike Nock, head A&R man for the jazz division. A New Zealander whose credits as a keyboardist date back to the '60s, Nock says he talked extensively with Naxos founder Klaus Heymann about his vision for the company before deciding to join the operation.

"I'd known Klaus for a long time," Nock says, speaking by phone from Australia, where's he currently touring with his band. "He'd played me some tapes of material that he wanted the label to release, and I told him I thought much of the stuff was awful. We talked for a long time, and I told him that what I wanted to do with Naxos was to make music with integrity, albums that we hoped would sell well and be contemporary, but have their own sound and be something different.

"We're not concerned with trying to tap into any kind of trendy thing, but we do want to make music that we feel will be around for a long time and isn't like everything else--whether it's free, swing, mainstream, or whatever you want to label it. We also want to record music from all over the world; there are truly great players who don't normally get a chance to record in America who deserve to have their music heard."

In this regard, Naxos has already cut sessions by a variety of far-flung musicians: Australia-based drummer Niko Schauble; the Finnish Umo Jazz Orchestra; Flipside, a New Zealand unit recently relocated to New York; Canadian trombonist Alain Trudel; and German pianist/composer Florian Ross. Most Naxos LPs are recorded live to two-track digital, with music business veteran David Baker occasionally handling engineering and production duties.

Nock, who sometimes doubles as executive producer, now lives and teaches in Australia, but he maintains regular contact with the Naxos' Middle Tennessee offices. Mary Sack, who previously worked with Rising Tide, joined the company last August and serves as marketing manager. She says response to the label's new venture has been excellent, with publications such as Jazz Times and Down Beat starting to take notice. Naxos also recently added Ivy Lindsey as an independent publicist.

So far, the label's roster includes New York City's critically lauded Ken Schaphorst Big Band, whose Purple is Naxos' most recent release. Other recent dates spotlight former Kool and the Gang trombonist Clifford Adams, whose sterling jazz debut The Master Power mixes hard bop with R&B and gospel influences, and tenor saxophonist David Sills, whose Journey Together ranges from challenging covers of Lennie Tristano, Joe Henderson, and Mal Waldron to such unusual originals as "Ho Chi Minh Hustle."

Nock's quintet is featured on Ozboppin, which smartly blends free pieces with straight-ahead blowing. Indeed, his own story is as interesting as Naxos': When he first came to America from New Zealand in the early '60s, he was an unconventional soloist and intriguing accompanist equally comfortable playing hard bop, free, or jazz-rock dates. He worked with whirlwind saxophonist Sam Rivers and legendary hard bop drummer Art Blakey, but his reputation was made in the short-lived early-'70s unit Fourth Way, one of the first fusion ensembles.

Though he has yet to appear in Nashville, Nock says he'd welcome the opportunity to play a gig here. In the meantime, he remains focused on Naxos, whose upcoming titles include dates by baritone saxophonist Joe Temperley and the group Putkipaga. Nock says there has also been some discussion about a Fourth Way reunion, but currently all the former members are busy with other projects. In any case, he is optimistic about the future of Naxos Jazz, and he feels the company's finding its way.

"We're working on building the distribution network; that's the toughest part," he observes. "We've got high hopes for some of the things coming this year, especially the Schaphorst Big Band. But we want people to know that these titles are good, that they won't cost anywhere near as much as [other jazz releases], and that [listeners] will have a good time with our music, if they'll take the chance."

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