May 2006

ObliqSound: Without Boundaries

ObliqSound is a U.S.- and Germany-based label that’s making serious noise in the jazz scene—and on the dance floor. The company’s motto is “Music without boundaries,” and its adventurous roster includes Gilfema (featuring buzz-worthy Beninian guitarist Lionel Loueke), Maori singer and songwriter Tama Waipara and Flügelschlag!, a three-piano group based in Germany. Meanwhile, the label’s marketing strategies cater to DJ culture by enlisting top-notch knob-twisters such as Osulande, Matthew Herbert and Trüby Trio for 12-inch releases destined for clubs, not living rooms.

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Timor Ras

Gilfema

“I think our 12-inch vinyl was one of the first things that we had a lot of success with. That really shocked us,” says Tobias Tanner, ObliqSound’s cofounder and president. “We worked closely with [the dance-floor jazz label] Giant Step in releasing the remixes; they got to some very prominent DJs. Those releases spawned a little area within our company.”

Tanner and his partners, Michele Locatelli and Ralf Schmid, were music students at Manhattan’s New School. Their goal was to release music from young artists with serious jazz pedigrees, but they weren’t concerned about creating conventional jazz. “We thought that it was necessary to put out discs that were appealing to musicians without alienating people who didn’t have a jazz background,” says Locatelli, who functions as the label’s A&R director. (Schmid, the label’s chairman, is also a member of Flügelschlag!)

There isn’t much straightahead jazz on ObliqSound, yet its discs often contain that “sound of surprise.” And for all the music’s accessibility, its artistic intergrity isn’t compromised. Take, for instance, “Mendiani” from Flügelschlag!’s eponymous CD. The song features prepared pianos and starts with spacious percussion and Senegalese chatter. Eventually, a melodic fragment emerges as the prattle slowly evolves and swells into a jubilant chorus. The hammered piano melodies morph into a monster groove accompanied by vocal yelps. “Mendiani” sounds simultaneously like an acoustic tune and an electronica jam, as if Kraftwerk and Herbie Hancock were embarking on a field recording.

That type of cross-cultural bristle also defines Gilfema’s self-titled disc. Loueke combines his remarkable guitar and singing talents with Swedish-Italian bassist Massimo Biolcati and Hungarian drummer Ferenc Nemeth to create bewitching soundscapes. “I look for something I haven’t heard before,” says Locatelli about his A&R process. “We want musicians who don’t think that they have to follow a certain trend.”

With forthcoming releases from pianist Andy Milne and harmonica player Gregoire Maret, ObliqSound will continue to be a jazz label to watch, and it’s keeping its niche in DJ culture with Renovation Unlimited, which offers jazztronica interpretations of early-20th-century songs. The label also has a new compilation, The ObliqSound Remixes vol. 2, featuring special packaging from world-class industrial designer Karim Rashid, best known for his work with Prada, Miyake and Umbra. “The design element has really helped us branch off into places beyond the traditional music retails,” Tanner says. “We sell CDs at museums, design shops and galleries. It’s Rashid’s first CD design; I think this is going to help us a lot in the fashion world.”

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