Label Watch: Songosaurus Music
Guitarist Richie Zellon has completed his ten-year quest to find a label willing to record and promote his approach to Latin jazz. Despite the fact that most of the recording executives he contacted loved his music, all were afraid to take a chance with it, being unsure about the strength of the market. It was at this point that Zellon figured the only way to end his search was to take the bull by the horns: He created Songosaurus Music.
“My first recording, Cafe con Leche, came out about four years ago,” said Zellon, who has his offices in Sanford, Florida. “From then on, my vision grew to producing music by others who are doing similar things.”
Zellon’s music is a bit difficult to pinpoint, save to say that he’s into the Latin jazz currents prevalent throughout South America, “other than the Caribbean styles, which is what we normally get around here.”
A main aspect of his vision is to offer the music by native Latin American artists, and record them with well-established American jazzers—cats who normally don’t play Latin, such as Jerry Bergonzi, who appears on Zellon’s inaugural release, and John Patitucci, on the label’s second offering, Chilcano, featuring killer pianist Jose Luis Madueno.
Zellon, a native of Peru, has been exposed to all the styles of music south of the equator. “Being a session player in South America is very different,” he said. “We play the different styles from surrounding countries and, growing up in Peru, we’re not just playing Afro-Cuban styles. We’re doing Colombian material, Argentinean tangos and Brazilian music.
Defining Latin jazz for Zellon is simple: it’s music that pertains to all of Latin America. “That’s what comes to my mind,” he said, “especially coming from a neutral area like Peru, where I’m able to stand back and play all styles of Latin music. Since starting the label, I’ve put all Latin styles under my umbrella, and that hasn’t been well accepted in some parts of Latin America, especially the Brazilian and Cuban cultures.” Brazilians, he says, feel their music is in a class by itself, and Cubans and Caribbeans also feel that Brazilian music isn’t real Latin jazz.
Zellon further simplifies matters by saying he records Latin Jazz, Brazilian and Latin-American jazz in general. He hopes that someday a term will be invented to bring all the different styles of Latin music, and their relationship to jazz, under one word or term. His tongue-in-cheek suggestion is “Lower Equatorial Jazz.”
“Our thing is to let the rhythm section handle the Latin grooves,” he continued. “I want to record outstanding Latin American artists playing their native tunes, but when it comes to blowing I want someone strongly rooted in our best jazz tradition. It’s an interesting marriage and the best of both worlds.”
Currently, Songosaurus has four releases in distribution, but 1998 will see it bring out seven more. Along with mixing Latin and American jazz styles, Zellon has encouraged artists to take music from the classical repertoire of their native countries and adapt the melodies to the Latin-American jazz tradition, a concept that results in some remarkable arrangements. For example, one of recordings set for release this spring is by pianist Richard Drexler, called Senor Juan Brahms. Drexler takes several compositions by the classic master and gives them a Latin groove—with guests Kenny Drew, Jr. and Dave Liebman. Zellon himself has a spring release, Metal Caribe, in which he interprets tunes such as Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water” and the theme from “Twilight Zone” with that Songosaurus touch. Among the featured musicians are Dave Samuels, Alex Acuna and Jerry Bergonzi.
Distribution is frustrating, although its four American distributors are doing a credible job. It’s the national situation with retail, says business manager Charlie Roper, that often causes the Songosaurus product to “fall through the cracks” when not listed in Billboard or the Gavin Charts. “This is where the Internet comes in,” he adds. “It will be a big savior for all the independent labels because people can obtain product quickly and without hassle right from their computers.”
Roper says the label’s big push is to obtain distribution in Europe and Japan. “At this point, such distribution is nonexistent,” he said. “But with our catalog of 12 releases ready to come out, we really feel we have the ability and product now to interest overseas distributors.”