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CIMP : CIMPly Independent

June 2004 marked the 10th anniversary of the recording session that produced the first released CIMP recording. This May the label issued its 45th series of five recordings, and along with CIMPosium 15, a sampler (like its 14 predecessors) featuring a track for each of the 15 most recently released recordings. Glancing over the personnel from those 225 sessions--from the British avant-gardists of CIMP 101 to the homegrown musical adventurers of CIMP 325 through an assortment of quirky boppers, neo-Third Streamers, veteran free thinkers, and all manner of label-defying characters--any devotee of creative improvised music can't help but being excited by the promise of such assemblages.

Yet the label remains woefully underappreciated. Though it has averaged about two dozen releases a year since its inception, provided a platform for the development of some of the most engaging individual artists and ensembles in the past ten years, and brought forward some forgotten masters, CIMP still seems relegated to the margins when it comes to broader appreciation. I find it unfathomable, for example, that the members of the Jazz Journalism Association fail to give the label enough votes to place it on its ballot for label of the year.

But that's not surprising. CIMP locates itself outside the mainstream of hype and promotion. Operating out of the Cadence complex, north of Booneville and Fort Drum in upstate New York, more than 300 miles of interstate highway and back roads from the jazz capital of the world, New York City, impresario Bob Rusch and his family strive to live by integrity alone. The Cadence facility, located on an old farm, renovated and added on to by the Rusch family itself, houses the various creative music endeavors that grew from the founding of the magazine Cadence in 1975.

Those include North Country Distribution, a wholesale and retail outlet for recordings, North Country Audio, a purveyor of audio equipment, Cadence Jazz Records, a distributor for artist-produced sessions, and CIMP. You can get everything from a $5 pair of socks to a $10,000 amplifier. When the Rusch grandchildren were babies and the family was involved in a battle to keep a large landfill from being located in the neighborhood, you could even buy cloth diapers from Cadence, one of the more interesting ways in which commerce, politics, and family life intertwined at the Cadence Building. Rusch is a jazz John Brown, albeit without the penchant for terrorism.

CIMP is the aesthetic culmination of the enterprise, bringing together the various skills of Rusch and his extended family to produce recordings that matter. And, as with all other Rusch endeavors, CIMP operates on its own wavelength.  Almost all recordings are made on site at the Spirit Room, a converted parlor in the farmhouse--a cozy, intimate space. Musicians make the long trek to the compound to record. They stay there, treated as house guests, imbibing the family's hospitality, which includes the fine cuisine provided by Rusch's wife Susan. (One of the additions to the house to accommodate CIMP was a new chef-quality stove--the food figures prominently in a number of the artist's notes for the recordings.)

The sessions are typically done over a couple of days, often starting at night, running into early morning, and resuming later in the morning. All these details are supplied by Rusch's frank, insightful notes that accompany each of the sessions. These are Rusch's current literary output since he has largely given up doing oral histories. Son Marc Rusch records the sessions live to two tracks using digital equipment. The resulting sonic signature--a dry, naked sound--has proven more controversial than the music. The recordings capture the range of sounds heard in a live performance from the barely audible low scrapings of a bass viol to the outre exuberance of a six-way free-for-all. Each instrument or voice has its own place on the sonic palette.

CIMP does not intend this music for casual listening. "Treat the recording as your private concert", the CIMP Statement of Purpose printed on each release advises, and that's the way their qualities are best appreciated. That need not involve the fanciest audiophile system. My own system, which I would characterize as entry-level audiophile, more than suffices. The volume must be turned up a few notches above the normal setting to a point that the instruments are about as loud as they would be if the band was set up across the room where the speakers are.

And the sound that emerges is as close to what was originally played as technology allows. CIMP's Spartan philosophy extends to postproduction. Rusch presents the performances as they go down--no added reverb for sweetening, no cut and paste editing, no overdubs. What you hear is what they got in the moment. That all adds up to recordings of rare immediacy, a sense of being at the performers' elbow.

The packaging, however, is not barebones. In a time where companies and artists seem to think that liner notes are superfluous, each CIMP recording comes with a statement from Rusch providing context for the music and describing the session itself, an artist statement that can be poetry or prose, and a statement from Marc Rusch explaining the technical particularities of the date. Whimsical cover art, by Rusch daughter Kara, decorates the packaging. That pleasing uniformity belies the variety of music the sessions contain.

CIMP, I believe, suffers from the presumption on some fans' part that it is devoted to the avant-garde. So-called avant-garde artists, including Anthony Braxton, do have a prominent place on the roster. More than anything, though, CIMP defies such easy distinctions. The music often defies genres. Cleveland-based saxophonist Ernie Krivda invests his own finely tuned brand of bop with a passion usually associated with free players. Rusch doesn't have a cookie-cutter approach, nor is it anything goes. Rather, each session must have its own impetus, adding something to the creative music record.

The CIMPosium samplers, in offering a morsel, often an excerpt from a song, present a kind of CIMP scrapbook, a handy way to review the history of the label. For a listener like myself, someone who has reviewed a couple dozen of the company's releases for various publications, and has in his collection more than a third of the label's output, the samplers serve as reminders of the aural delights CIMP has offered and a serious temptation to overheat the plastic to acquire even more CDs.

The 15 CIMPosium collections present as well an ongoing narrative of the goings-on in the Spirit Room and the select few CIMP sessions not recorded there. (The studio does not have a piano, so any session involving the instrument must be done elsewhere. Recently that elsewhere has been a hall at a nearby college that possesses a fine instrument.) The listener can follow the progress of those who have become CIMP regulars--Joe McPhee, Steve Swell, Lou Grassi, Odean Pope, drummer Jay Rosen, and bassist Dominic Duval.

Rosen and Duval have appeared so often on CIMP recordings, often in tandem (19 sessions), that they have been called the CIMP house rhythm section, something Rusch has taken exception to.  While it may seem a petty point, reference to a "house rhythm section" implies a method of operation with the producer calling the shots in terms of personnel and repertoire not in keeping with Rusch's more collaborative approach. He has initiated a few groupings, bringing together players he feels will be inspired pairings. Still the concepts for the recordings come from the artists, and they decide who they'd like to realize them regardless of who may be hot in the marketplace.

Cruising through the CIMPosium discs I'm reminded that the label provided the last recorded commentary by a number of notable musicians--Frank Lowe, Denis Charles, Wilbur Morris, and Charles Moffett.  Several former Sun Ra hands--Ahmed Abdullah, Marshall Allen, and Tyrone Hill--have also found a forum at the label. Abdullah's NAM band, featuring the fine young baritone saxophonist Alex Harding, is one of the ensembles CIMP has helped foster. Probably the most notable of these are the ones that took shape in the Spirit Room: Trio X with McPhee, Duval, and Rosen and Grassi's Po'Band, an ensemble whose free improvisation is informed by an awareness of old New Orleans practice. Also, Krivda, who led CIMP's second session, absented himself for a number of years and returned to the label in 2003 to document his own compositions as performed by his Cleveland-based working band.

The most recent CIMPosium is indicative of the label's output. Pianist Burton Greene, a figure from the early days of the avant-garde, returns for a third session featuring frequent Spirit Room presence trumpeter Roy Campbell. Saxophonists John Gunther and John O'Gallagher each have a session continuing their explorations of the intersection of composition and improvisation (something that's become a continuing preoccupation of many of the label's sessions). Swell appears on two sessions, one a document of a touring quartet with European saxophonist Gebhard Ullmann and then a typically quirky session that features him in a two-trombone frontline with bass trombonist and iconoclast David Taylor.

Taylor's sometimes bizarre pigeonhole-busting muse is an uneasy fit for most labels, but proves a cozy match with CIMP's open-minded approach. An intellectual loose cannon, he strides brusquely through music ancient to contemporary, through philosophical slapstick from Lenny Bruce or Catullus, with little regard to conventional niceties.  CIMP's Not Just... has Taylor and Swell with a string trio of violinist Billy Bang, cellist Tomas Ulrich, and bassist Ken Filiano. All are CIMP regulars.  The recent releases also show that Rusch is still looking out for new additions, including sessions by guitarist Ken Wessel and vocalist Mark Pompe. Pompe is a veteran performer from Chicago, who after decades is now just emerging on the national recording scene thanks in large part to Rusch. (Cadence Jazz Records also released a Pompe CD.)

Philadelphia-based vibraphonist Khan Jamal, a journeyman from the 1970s scene, has also benefited from Rusch's patronage, leading four CIMP sessions--the most recent of which, Black Awareness, features the playing and compositions of trombonist Grachan Moncur III. The session is one more sign of Moncur's reemergence on the scene, and calls to mind CIMP's role in the return of another trombone master and Moncur-cohort, Roswell Rudd. Rudd first played on a two-trombone session that was Swell's first as a leader and then led a session devoted to Herbie Nichols compositions that produced two CDs. These have earned somewhat more press and attention than others in CIMP's catalog. They are jewels among jewels in a musical treasure trove that still awaits the full appreciation of the listening public.

Jazz fans revel in nostalgia for long gone independent labels, such as the original Blue Note, Commodore, and ESP.  But that appreciation should be spread to CIMP, a label that continues to advance that tradition, adding its own distinctive philosophy to the mix.