March 2001

Label Watch: Mosaic Records

Mosaic Records, the jazz world’s premier reissue label, recently celebrated its 100th release. We decided to catch up with Mosaic’s Michael Cuscuna, who has run the label for almost 20 years with partner Charlie Lourie. (At press time, we learned that Lourie passed away Dec. 31, 2000, from cardiac arrest.  He had been suffering from sclera-derma the past three years. Log onto Jazztimes.com for more info.)

JazzTimes: What’s your favorite Mosaic reissue?

For both Charlie and me, the Herbie Nichols and Tina Brooks sets meant a lot to us personally because we deeply love their music and they are so neglected. These were rare instances where reissues created a new sense of awareness and new interest in these artists. I’m also very proud of the T-Bone Walker and HRS sets because those legacies were in such bad shape.

JazzTimes: Which set was the fastest seller? Slowest?

It’s hard to measure our fastest seller because the company has had an ever-changing customer base over the years. For the longest time, it would have been our very first set, The Complete Blue Note Recordings of Thelonious Monk. But it was superceded later by the massive Nat Cole set and more recently by the Django Reinhardt set. Our slowest sellers have probably been the Shorty Rogers and Buddy DeFranco sets.

JazzTimes: Most amazing discovery while digging through the vaults?

Still for me, nothing matched the thrill of finding an alternate take of Monk’s “Well You Needn’t” from the first Blue Note trio session in ’47. He plays the melody so differently and magnificently. If that take had been issued, no one would have tried to record it. It would have been too hard! The discoveries are the big payoff for days of tedium and detective work.

JazzTimes: Do you really love all of the music you’ve released?

Most choices are not based on our personal taste. They are based on a body of work by an important artist that has yet to be treated properly. I love everything I’ve worked on, but I get deeply into that artist’s music during the research and making of a set. I’ve come to respect a lot of artists that I hadn’t paid much attention to previously.

JazzTimes: What set would you like to see back in print?

I guess I’d like to see the Count Basie sets—Roulette live and studio—come back because it’s such great music. Basie puts the tempos in the pocket, Sonny Payne never stops swinging, and the charts are magnificent. What more can you ask for?

JazzTimes: Biggest boo boo that you’ve made while creating a “definitive” reissue?

Luckily, we’ve only had a few omissions or mistitled tracks among the thousands of performances we’ve dealt with. But at the time, each one is excruciating to someone as compulsive as I am. The biggest goof is on our 100th set, the Johnny Hodges. There are two alternate takes from the “Blues A Plenty” session that came out on a Ben Webster CD that I didn’t know about. The tapes were filed under Webster, not Hodges so our research didn’t uncover them. And some of the people involved in the project had known about them, but forgot! That one really hurts.

JazzTimes: The reissue you’ve most desired to work on but were rejected by the record company?

The most glaring example is the complete Verve Gerry Mulligan Concert Band, which we’ve been asking for since 1987. Gerry was still alive then and very excited about it. First Verve France was going to do it. Then a few years later Verve Japan was going to do it. Now American Verve is hoping to do it. But Gerry’s been dead for years and still nothing! I also wanted to do a Lennie Tristano box that encompassed all labels. It was too difficult to get all the labels to cooperate so we ended up doing an Atlantic box of all the Tristano, Konitz and Marsh sessions that I’m just as happy with.

JazzTimes: What kind of ribald studio chatter are you privy to that doesn’t make it to the sets?

Well, most studio conversations don’t get on tape. In the course of documenting Miles Davis’ legacy at Columbia, there have been some very funny exchanges by him and others. He was a provocateur with a wry sense of humor. There are some Blue Note tapes where Art Blakey or Ike Quebec lost their temper and blew up, usually over a misunderstanding with a sideman or Alfred Lion. Rudy says he kept the tapes going at such times in case the situation got ugly, but it never did.

JazzTimes: Michael, do you ever step outside the studio? Or do you just order takeout and sleep on a cot?

I’m always in a studio or a vault or at the computer. I do miss doing new recordings and don’t hear as much live music as I’d like to. But in all my endeavors, be it Mosaic or Blue Note or selected Columbia projects, the feeling is always that this may all crumble tomorrow and I’ve got to get as much of this researched, corrected, preserved and issued as quickly as possible. I’ve seen the jazz record business disappear a couple of times and it can happen again. That’s the urgency that drives me.

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