May 1999

Label Watch: Jazz Focus

The cliché says that where you put your money is where your true passions lie. For Canadian Philip Barker, founder and president of Jazz Focus Records, it’s obvious that it’s the music that matters.

“People sometimes ask why I started Jazz Focus,” he said from his office in Calgary, Alberta. “I could have invested my money more profitably in other areas, but money isn’t everything. I believe music is more important by far, and it is a fact that most of the music we have recorded would never have existed had it not been for Jazz Focus.”

Recording solid, straight-ahead jazz by artists who deserve wider recognition is the philosophy of the label—one that General Manager Richard Sutherland underscores: “We are a business and we operate under those constraints for sure, but Philip started the label because of his love for jazz. Pianist Jessica Williams is a fine example; she was the first artist to record on our label—a solo recording called Arrival. Philip still says it’s still his favorite. Yet Jessica hasn’t been as well known as she deserves to be and I think she sets the mold for the kind of artist we are looking to record.”

The label stays true to its mission to stay in the jazz mainstream, with Sutherland quickly adding that no “smooth jazz” will ever reach the microphones of Jazz Focus Records.

“Jessica [Williams] has made the label up to now,” he continued. “Her records are our top sellers and they get a lot of acclaim artistically and critically. We’re anxious to get her to her next career level, booking her on a tour of Japan this year where she’ll be sharing the stage with Tommy Flanagan, Benny Green, and Cyrus Chestnut—the kind of company she should be keeping.” Her current release is a solo tribute, In the Key of Monk.

Williams, however, is only a part of the cadre of Jazz Focus talent. Both Barker and Sutherland are impressed with vocalist Kendra Shank, whose recording, Wish, has made the upper reaches of the Gavin charts. Pianist and trombonist Hugh Fraser, a stalwart of the Canadian jazz scene, brought the label its first Juno Award—the Canadian equivalent to a Grammy—for his release, In the Mean Time, where he fronted a quintet. His latest, teamed with saxophonist Jean Toussasint, is released as Back to Back.

Other label highlights include Canadian tenorist John Nugent, whose quartet teams with guest David Liebman on Taurus People. “John’s record has been great for us,” said Sutherland, “and he’ll be touring festivals up here. Philip and I are also fond of pianist Misako Kano. We heard her at the JazzTimes Convention two years ago and we’re planning on a lot more projects with her.” Kano’s new release is Breakthrew, with the late Thomas Chapin on alto and flute, Ron McClure on bass, and Jeff Williams on drums. Finding Kano,according to Barker, was a dream come true—”an artist who plays exactly the kind of music the company aims to release, is not yet widely known, and was not committed to an exclusive contract with another record label.”

Swing revival is the message on drummer Chad Rager’s new big band release, In the Club, Live, and a release from Italian pianist Dado Maroni is also in the works.

The label’s distribution arrangement with Allegro has given Jazz Focus a greater presence in North America, with Sutherland reporting a doubling of revenues during the past year. New distributors have recently been positioned in Germany and the Netherlands, adding to those already in place in the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, and Switzerland.

Current plans call for maintaining a release schedule of about six per year with even greater expansion in the global marketplace.

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