February 2015

“Well, it could be interesting to create a label.”

Jacques Oger of Potlatch Records
By Brian Olewnick

In the fall of 2014, I walked over to Jacques Oger’s warm home in the 19th arrondissement of Paris, shared some tea and engaged in a conversation. I’ve left out my comments and questions below, choosing to simply present Jacques’ remarks as they occurred.

When I was living with my parents, there was not much music at home. They didn’t have a record player, but we could listen to music on the radio. They didn’t listen to France Musique, they were listening to the big broadcasts: France Inter, Radio Luxembourg. So it was French singers, Piaf, Aznavour, Brassens, etc. I was given some piano lessons in high school, ordinary things. I liked that. I had a friend at the time who could play boogie-woogie and the blues and he showed me how to do it. It was fun but I didn’t know anything about jazz or blues, I was twelve or thirteen. Of course, I played very badly.

When I was fourteen or fifteen, I happened to hear something about jazz; Sidney Bechet was very famous in France, even among young people. Around the same time, at the end of high school there is an exam and I did well, so my parents made me a gift of a record player. A single box with a speaker in it, it was very nice, but I had no records. At the time, on the radio, I was listening to pop music, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Beach Boys, The Animals, James Brown, Otis Redding and so many others and I liked that very much. And I started to buy one or two jazz LPs: Sidney Bechet, Fats Waller (it was a low-price collection). And I soon read a book by Mezz Mezzrow, who was living in France, “Really the Blues” [“La Rage de Vivre”, in French], he played with Bechet, New Orleans style. He wrote about the 1930s when he was living in Chicago. It was a fantastic story about Chicago in the Prohibition days. I bought an LP with Mezzrow. Fantastic. I bought Jazz Magazine, monthly, with very good writers like Philippe Carles, Jean-Louis Comolli. I was starting to listen to France Musique [radio] that had a lot of modern jazz. Then I read André Francis’ “Jazz”, a history of jazz from the beginning. Before reading that, I did not know anything about jazz but when I finished it, I knew almost everything about this music but I hadn’t heard any! [laughs]. I knew all the names. So I had to listen.

When I was living at my parents, there was a town of about 50,000 people, Cholet, with a record store. In the window, the French pop stars, Johnny Hallyday, Françoise Hardy. There was a big classical music section and a big jazz section. Wow! I knew all the names! In 1965, there were a lot of LPs with Coltrane, Rollins, Monk. I already knew that it was better, for me, to listen to Monk rather than Peterson, just from what I’d read. And very quickly, I saw there was something coming out, they called it “New Thing” or “Free Jazz”. I could find LPs on Blue Note, Impulse, Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, Don Cherry, Archie Shepp—I could find them there very easily. I was a bit informed about other musical genres. For instance I heard about Stockhausen from reading but I couldn’t afford to buy everything. I liked rock too, so I used to borrow things from my friends (including Trout Mask Replica when it was out). The first really important LP I owned was Miles Davis, “Bag’s Groove”, with Jackson, Monk and Rollins (on side B)—it was a Christmas gift from my aunt! Well, she didn’t know anything but I knew she went to this record store and asked the owner about a gift to her nephew who liked jazz. At first, I didn’t like it and it took a few weeks to enjoy it! But quickly it was a deep revelation for me. And it helped me to understand what is the essence of jazz.

I was playing piano a little. With some friends, we formed a rock band in my village. A friend was playing guitar and another was playing drums, and my parents bought me a tiny organ, only two and a half octaves, two buttons, very, very bad. We had many rehearsals, playing covers from Black Sabbath and Pink Floyd, it was very funny. Fortunately, we never played on stage.

Anyway, I was lucky to move in a suburb near Paris when I was 18 but I couldn’t afford to go to concerts. When I was 20, I started to live inside Paris, in 1971. I was a student and I spent a lot of time going to concerts. Mostly free jazz. I saw, the AACM guys, Braxton, Lacy, etc. When I was a student, there was a lot of trouble and demonstrations in the Parisian streets, post-’68, the extreme-Left was very important and I liked that sort of things, I was very close to that. And the music was close to it—some US musicians were close to the Black Panther Party. On France Inter radio, there was José Artur, a very important guy, he had a program, Le Pop Club, rock, jazz and free jazz every night, interviewing many musicians! You couldn’t escape that. It wasn’t until about 1974 that I got a real job doing business-to-business marketing research. I wasn’t so happy working in that field, but I had to make a living.

Once, I was walking in Paris near Montparnasse, maybe in 1975, and I heard somebody playing saxophone in the street. I approached and saw a very young guy, about 20, playing kind of like Lester Young. I was very impressed and talked with him and asked when he started playing. He said, less than one year. I was amazed. So some days after, I rented a tenor saxophone, and I tried to find a teacher. The first guy I called was Jean-Louis Chautemps, a great saxophonist, but he didn’t give lessons any more, and he gave me the name of another teacher. So I started playing. Three months later, I could play Lester Young’s “Ghost of a Chance” including his chorus I learned by heart and I was very happy. But I always had this job and could play only on the weekends.

Two or three years later, I went to a master class run by Steve Lacy at Châteauvallon (a very important jazz festival near Toulon, Méditerranée) that was very nice. There I met Etienne Brunet. We became friends and we talked a lot when back in Paris. I had started to listen to English free music around 1975. In Paris, there was a record store founded by a guy named Gérard Terronès, who had organized many concerts in Paris with Sam Rivers, Archie Shepp, Willem Breuker, etc. and ran Futura, a very important label. It was the only place in France you could find Incus or FMP records. Afterwards, the store was run by a great lady named Dolo. I remember the first time I listened to Derek Bailey on record, inside her store. She put this on—oof, what is this? I couldn’t stand it! What the hell is this, what are you playing?! I don’t like that! Some weeks later, I came back and bought it and grew to like it, of course. Anyway, Brunet was rehearsing with a guitarist named Marc Dufourd and they wanted to make free improvised music. I joined them and we did some rehearsals and looked for concerts and recording opportunities. We created this group called Axolotl and we started performing live in 1979 at 28 Rue Dunois. A club in Paris where there was a lot of free jazz and free improvised music. Everybody played there from 1978 until about 1985. At that time, I gave up working my marketing research job.

In jazz, my favorite saxophone player then (and until today) was Sonny Rollins but only what he did before 1967-68. I liked Coltrane very much but I never wanted to make something like that. Albert Ayler, Peter Brotzmann, Sam Rivers of course but I was mainly impressed by Evan Parker. So we played many gigs in Paris and as I had some friends in the jazz area so we could play in several French jazz festivals [laughs]. And also at the very first Vandœuvre/Nancy festival edition, Musique Action and at Sens Music Meeting which was run by Jacques Berrocal and Claude Parle.

I was very impressed by John Zorn too, I loved the Parachute records with Chadbourne, Ostertag and those guys and also Alterations with David Toop, Steve Beresford , Peter Cusack and Terry Day. I sometimes happened to play with Daunik Lazro, Joëlle Léandre, Jac Berrocal— a completely crazy guy. I enjoyed that very much. With Axolotl, we made two LPs. The first one was on d’Avantage, the Berrocal’s label: it was released in 1981, with a sand paper cover. We were very unlucky with that. If we could have released it three months earlier, we would have been on Steven Stapleton’s famous Nurse with Wound list, because everything on Jac’s label was listed there!

And later, in 1984, I had this internal crisis —can I do music all my life? Can I do that? And I decided I didn’t want to keep on playing. I was very serious when I played with Axolotl, I practiced every day but… if you want to make music, it means you have something to say to the audience. And my answer was more than doubtful. I remain proud of the music I did—it’s not great but it’s ok, not too bad. But I preferred to stop, finish it. I had arguments with my friends, of course, but that’s life. I phoned my ex-boss, “You remember me? Can I come back?” He agreed and very soon I was back in marketing research.

I always kept on going to gigs, of course, seeing all the musicians, including the newer French musicians like Michel Doneda, Lê Quan Ninh. I wanted to stay close to the music and musicians. I still played the saxophone at home for a few years, from 1984-1988, only jazz standards (The Jazz Messengers, Horace Silver), blues and many Monk’s themes. But I quit when my son was born in 1988.

In 1990, I was on Radio Libertaire, every Monday night from 10PM to 1AM, playing records; I did that for one year. Then Les Instants Chavirés (a venue close to Paris) opened in 1991 and every year there was a big festival, Musique Action, in Vandœuvre near Nancy. I wrote from time to time some reviews in magazines. Then one day, in 1997, I had this idea, “Well, it could be interesting to create a label.” There were few websites for improvised music labels (efi) and in France there weren’t enough labels to document French musicians. So I thought there was a good opportunity. If the Internet had not existed, I would have never done it. I was on the Zorn List. I think I was one of the few French guys to be there—we tried to create the same kind of thing in France, the Fennec List, it’s still running. So the Zorn List was very important to me. Just before starting the label, I wrote to some distributors in the US, and other countries. I wrote Forced Exposure to see if they’d buy from me and they agreed. And they did, but… only once. [laughs] I wrote everybody, everywhere and they told me yes, they would buy it so… let’s do it.

The first thing I wanted to do was to thank musicians who had been so important to me. These musicians were Derek Bailey, Evan Parker, Daunik Lazro and Michel Doneda. I first saw Daunik in 1973 or ’74, was very impressed and he supported Axolotl, so I wanted to do something with him. I met Doneda in 1979 and was amazed by him. Fred van Hove too. He had a festival in Antwerp, the King Kong festival and he invited Axolotl in 1982, he was very nice. I remember when I was playing there and Evan Parker was in the audience, just in front of me. Aggggghh! The stress! After the concert, he came up and told me, “Ah, you played well.” I don’t think he thought that really, but he was very kind. I had played once with Joëlle Léandre but she always tells me that she didn’t remember!

When I started the label, Derek Bailey was in town with Joëlle at Les Instants Chavirés, so I got on with that, and it was recorded. My job was mainly, at that moment, to have the label name get around, for instance in WIRE and Cadence (North Country). I did not want to be just well known in France. With WIRE, there was a guy named Trevor Manwaring, who was running distribution for Harmonia Mundi in the UK, he ran the ad part for WIRE so I had several times ads placed there. It was very important for me because I came from nowhere. And one year later, Potlatch was not completely unknown.

I can explain the financing of Potlatch. When I created Potlatch. I invested my own savings, exactly 50,000 francs, about 8,000 Euros. I never added money after that. Now it’s self-financing. If I want to make a new release, I have to wait for the money coming back from the sales. That’s why I don’t make a lot of releases, an average of three per year.

The most important thing for me, as a producer, is to think about the aesthetic direction. I have to listen to a lot of things… sometimes I can be in doubt, hesitating. As a former musician, I gave a kind of priority to my beloved instrument, the saxophone. I know who are the great saxophonists, and I think most of them are on Potlatch, including some who were not well known such as Christine Abdelnour Sehnaoui, Stéphane Rives. And when you know people like Jean-Luc Guionnet, Michel Doneda, John Butcher, Bertrand Denzler, well, of course I had to make something with them because they are innovating on this instrument.

I always try to find something original. I want to offer this kind of specificity to the listener. Of course originality can be found in various directions. It can be an unpublished association of musicians (Parker-Rowe) or in the music itself. From 2002, my choices were more focused on new musical realms, some more spacious forms of music with new textures, slower pace, presence of silence, a preference for collective sound rather than chatty ping-pong playing only based on energy and spontaneity … That’s why I asked Phosphor to record for Potlatch. Just before I had met Burkhard Beins and Ignaz Shick several times during gigs in France.

About the saxophone: I like musicians who try to push the envelope. I was lucky enough to meet the saxophonists I liked: Evan Parker, John Butcher, Michel Doneda, Daunik Lazro, Stéphane Rives, Jean-Luc Guionnet, Bertrand Denzler. As a former saxophonist myself, I know what’s happening with this instrument. I was very amazed by a lot of saxophonists. And I can imagine that there are some links between all these saxophonists, a continuity, sometimes with steps forward. Doneda is a master of blowing techniques on soprano saxophone. Rives opened new fields: sustained sounds, new textures, microtonality. I am interested by musicians who go beyond commonly accepted boundaries such as Seymour Wright (even if I never made releases with him) and Marc Baron, who is extremely talented. He started by playing modern jazz with Louis Sclavis, and quickly became interested in conceptual music, particularly with the duo Narthex with Loïc Blairon. Now he has given up playing saxophone and is more and more interested by sound and video installations, or electroacoustic composed music. Sergio Merce has innovated a lot by removing the keys and original mechanisms and replacing them with an assortment of water, gas and compressed air taps.

And I like musicians facing with new challenges, mainly about the confrontation between acoustic instruments and electronics. The duos Butcher/Kurzmann, Guionnet/Nakamura, Doneda and Bosetti with Baghdassarians and Baltschun, Trio Sowari (Burkhard Beins, Phil Durrant, Bertrand Denzler) match these targets very well. I am sure it’s very difficult for a saxophonist to find his place between the electronics sounds of Phil Durrant and Beins’ abstract percussion. Same thing with the release with Klaus Filip and Dafne Vicente-Sandoval, where she plays the bassoon in a very strange way. She places the mics inside the tube, makes cracking sounds. I am attracted by acoustic musicians who are influenced by electronic sounds , for example The Contest of Pleasures or the sax quartet Propagations.

I also like musicians who are obsessed with details. Originality and quality are often hidden in very small details. Bertrand Denzler’s solo album is a good example–try to give a re-listen to the very first minutes of Tenor, there are some amazing tiny things. Same for Stéphane Rives’ solo album, Fibres. I believe that a label can bring a musician some credibility. I think it worked that way with this Rives’ CD. He was not very well known at that time. I guess he gained some recognition with Fibres. I do hope Potlatch can keep on bringing this credibility. It’s a mission statement for a label. Musicians need that; they can’t get it only with streaming. I also try to select musicians who are not well known but who deserve a wider recognition, as I did in the past with Sophie Agnel, Frédéric Blondy, Stéphane Rives, Christine Abdelnour Sehnaoui, Hans Tammen.

I’m very happy to know so many musicians, to be able to listen and talk with them. I know personally almost all the musicians I make releases with. I meet and can listen to them in Paris or French festivals. And they give me ideas for future projects. I need to know their music, to understand what they are doing. I got to know Lucio Capece about ten years ago when he came and lived in Paris for two or three months and played often. But life here was too expensive, so he went to Berlin. Every time he played, we talked. He was playing with Radu Malfatti, Kevin Drumm. He said, “Maybe I’ll send you something later”. Eventually, he sent me what became “Zero Plus Zero” and I was very impressed. Most of the time, a CD is from talking to the musicians and agreeing with them to record something.

And when I have an esthetic strike, I want to release it on CD. All my choices are based on my sensitivity. I think selecting the right musicians and sessions to release is the main job when you run a label, maybe the only one! The important thing for me is to choose, to have an aesthetic direction.

In fact, when I am convinced by the quality of a music, I ask the musicians how to do something together. It can be a live recording (we can make several before choosing). Or it can be studio sessions. It depends on the project. For instance, I made this Dedalus recording with Antoine Beuger and Jürg Frey. Like many people, I discovered their music thanks to Malfatti a while ago but I knew Didier Aschour eight years ago—Dedalus existed then, they played James Tenney, Earl Brown, La Monte Young, “In C” too—incredible! It took a long time to organize the project. Wandelweiser, they don’t need me, of course, but in Paris, very few people knew them. So I tried to make a concert, make a CD, to help. I don’t think I’ll make a lot of CDs with them, but I was very happy to organize all this, to get their name around. I don’t care if it’s not improvisation. Actually, Wandelweiser music shares many things with recent trends in improvised music: importance of sound, of silence… Another example, one of the very first times I saw Jean-Luc Guionnet and Seijiro Murayama, it was in a church in Paris, maybe five years on a winter night. It was very cold and I was hesitating to go to this concert. But anyway, I went and figured I’d stay 30 minutes say hello then go home. It started at 9PM and I sat down, maybe ten people, not more. I look at my watch, it’s 9:30, 10PM, 11PM… I thought they’re finishing, so I stayed. At the end, at midnight, I was the only person. It was one of the most amazing concerts I’d ever seen. Three hours. They played with their eyes closed the whole time. When they opened their eyes, they burst out laughing—just me there. Listening to their music was like looking in a microscope: you see something and you open it, then you go into the details and you open that and, very slowly, go into more details, deeper and deeper. So I told them, I want to make a CD, you record everything you do and send it to me. So I have a lot of concerts of theirs, and we finally chose one. But I never heard again what I heard on that night.

For 2014, I have several projects. I recently released Sergio Merce’s first recording on his new saxophone. He totally transformed it, like a plumber. He took off the keys and kept only the tube then welded faucets and things on it. So, a saxophone like that, I had to do a recording of it! Just out now is Marc Baron’s new one, “Hidden Tapes”, very detailed compositions constructed from his own personal cassettes. And there is another one, very heavy, with Eric La Casa and Jean-Luc Guionnet that they made in Glasgow—four CDs.

This last, “Home:Handover’”, was released by Potlatch in October and, in addition to being the most ambitious release from the label, is one of the most fascinating, consisting of a multi-level process involving the documentation of four individuals’ listening habits and preferences in their own homes (with a concentration on the environment involved), an “interpretation” of that recording by five musicians (two speakers, clarinet, guitar and percussion), an additional commentary by another individual, including the introduction of more recorded music and, finally, a mix of these three situations by La Casa and Guionnet, this sequence being repeated four times, once per CD. It’s a unique, personal and intimate examination of the act of listening.

In early 2015, Potlatch released a recording of Michael Pisaro’s “Melody, Silence (for solo guitar)”, performed by Cristián Alvear. Later in the year, Oger hopes to release duo recordings from Stéphane Rives/Bryan Eubanks and Pascal Battus/Dafne Vicente-Sandoval.

About the Author

I live in Paris and write too much about music.