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Leap of Faith: John Esposito’s Sunjump Records 

click to enlarge FIONN REILLY

Someone starting a record label in today’s economic wasteland would seem to be, to put it kindly, quixotic. The middleman-cutting, direct-marketing accessibility of the Internet has at last wrested distribution away from the majors, and theoretically put indies on the same level as those long-monopolizing big boys. But at the same time the system is decimating many of the same smaller, integrity-driven, DIY concerns it’s been touted as helping: The file-sharing genie long ago popped out of the bottle and opened the floodgates, and now every second millions of self-professed “music lovers” plunge a knife in the hearts of the artists they profess to admire by stealing their music, without so much as a thought, via quasi-legal torrent sites. Most of this thievery involves pop music; jazz is less of a target. But, then, jazz has had it way harder for way longer. Jazz record sales reached their commercial peak during the big band era, and since then the genre has barely been able to keep going through artistically pivotal but comparatively modestly selling cult labels (this even includes the vaunted Impulse! ECM, and Blue Note) and occasional money-losing vanity releases on the majors. (There was a record-industry joke a couple decades back that went like this: “Q: How do you make a million on a jazz record? A: You spend three million.”) So those with new labels have it rough enough, but anyone running a jazz label nowadays? Ouch. And one that specializes in regional jazz? Double ouch. Whoever would be behind such an enterprise could only be doing it for the love.

Love is clearly what drives John Esposito’s Sunjump Records, an effort the Germantown pianist and educator began in 1986 and reactivated 20 years later. And, despite the odds, since the relaunch the imprint’s managed to survive while doing an exceptional job of documenting not just Esposito’s music, but that of other heretofore overlooked, Upstate-linked musicians. Obviously a selfless man. To some extent.

“Well, I partially restarted Sunjump in 2006 for my own sense of moving forward creatively,” he admits. “I’d had a family and helped raise two kids. [Esposito was the companion of singer and voice teacher Pamela Pentony, who had two children from a previous partner.] The relationship ended and I began revisiting all of these early recordings I’d been involved in, as a way of rethinking my work and figuring out where to go next. I decided I wanted to release them, and one thing led to another.”

It’s tempting to say it was the Marlborough-raised Esposito’s genetic destiny to become a jazz musician: His grandfather, Salvatore Esposito, was a violinist, saxophonist, and violin maker who played with 1920s jazz king Paul Whiteman. “But I didn’t really find out about that until after he’d died, when I’d already been playing jazz for years,” the keyboardist maintains. “And my parents were more into classical and Broadway stuff.” It was the blues that bit him first—the Delta stylings of Robert Johnson, Bukka White, and Son House, followed by the postwar Chicago greats, and, eventually, the Butterfield Blues Band and Jimi Hendrix—and in his mid teens motivated him to pick up the harmonica and sit in with neighboring guitarist Steve Geraci’s garage band. Geraci taught him some basic piano progressions and introduced him to jazz via records by Django Reinhardt, Charlie Parker, Art Tatum, and Charles Mingus. Next came studies in composition at SUNY Albany, after which he became the house pianist at the Gemini Jazz Cafe, where he worked with the Capital Region’s two saxophone legends, J. R. Monterose and Nick Brignola, and led his first band. In 1980 he made the leap south, becoming part of Manhattan’s inspired Downtown loft scene and meeting saxophonist, guitarist, and composer Arthur Rhames, with whom he performed for five years.

Rhames, who died in 1989 at age 32, never released any recordings during his lifetime but remains an enigmatic firebrand whose all-too-briefly-burning flame is recalled with reverent nods and headshaking disbelief by those lucky enough to have witnessed it. “Arthur’s energy and technique as a musician, his prolific level as a composer. You can’t even imagine it,” Esposito says. “If you believe that John Coltrane’s and Miles Davis’s 1960s work was the pinnacle of transcendence, well, he digested that, along with what Jimi Hendrix did, and took it all to the next level. It was frightening to watch Arthur go by and know that very few people had an awareness of him.” (To date there have only been two posthumously issued Rhames-led dates, on the Ayler and DIW labels; thankfully, Sunjump is readying more material for release.) Following Rhames’s passing, Esposito formed Second Sight, a quintet that also included two other eventual Hudson Valley players, bassist Allen Murphy and drummer Jeff “Siege” Siegel, as well as saxophonist Jeff Marx, and future trumpet star Dave Douglas. At the height of the retro-nostalgic “Young Lions” era the besuited band fit right in visually, but its music, which crossed that scene’s overt bop references with more modern free-jazz influences, often displeased patrons in search of a little Wynton Marsalis to go with their cocktails.

“At that time, if you wanted to work in New York clubs you bought a suit,” recalls Esposito. “But I never wanted to be part of the Young Lions movement. It was like some neoconservative hard bop mindset, where everybody just wished they could be Miles Davis in 1963. At the same time, though, [the band] didn’t fit into the Downtown scene, which was more about contemporary classical and avant-garde than African-American-based music. So we were kind of in between.” Still, Second Sight won the plaudits of critics and even iconic pianist Horace Silver, who sometimes “borrowed” the band from Esposito—with the starstruck junior musician’s approval, of course—for gigs. Flying With the Comet , the fivesome’s debut and Sunjump’s inaugural release, arrived on vinyl in 1986 and in addition to the title piece features other likewise forward-driving performances with giveaway names like “Discoverers,” “Don’t Look Back,” and, naturally, “Jump at the Sun.” (The album was rereleased, with bonus cuts, on CD in 2008.) In 1988 the label issued two other LPs, guitarist Jose Chalas’s Living on Avenue F and vibraphonist Marc Wagnon’s Shadowlines, before both it and Second Sight folded and Esposito turned his attention to his family and the teaching position at Bard College he still holds. In the ’90s he worked with drummer Franklin Kiermyer’s group, which found him recording with saxophone titans Pharoah Sanders and Sam Rivers, and with saxist Eric Person’s band, alongside bassist Dave Holland and drummer Gene Jackson.

While the Hudson Valley has a long and deeply embedded jazz community, there’ve been surprisingly few labels to reflect this. Other than Sunjump, Catskill’s Planet Arts and Kingston’s Reservoir Music come to mind, although neither of them have been as locally focused. With his operation, Esposito is fully involved in every step of the process, from gathering the musicians and booking studio time to writing liner notes, from choosing the eye-engaging original art that adorns the CD covers to handling promotion and distribution, and producing and playing on the sessions. He began the label’s resurrection with two 2003 recordings, his trio’s Down Blue Marlin Road and his quintet’s The Blue People, and since then has divided the discography between recent and archival recordings. In addition to the Second Sight album the latter includes two concerts from New York’s Knitting Factory, the Esposito-led octet suite A Book of Five Rings and Woodstock flutist Jayna Nelson’s quintet date Bloom of Creation; Geraci’s shelved 1980 set Aliqae Song; and Earthship, a 1996 studio session by yet another unheard avatar, guitarist Sangeeta Michael Berardi.

Now living in California, Berardi was a vital contributor to the Manhattan loft scene before immigrating in 1968 to Woodstock, where he performed at the fabled Sound Out festivals and started the Group 212 collective, which introduced free jazz to the region and paved the way for the later Creative Music Studio. Stricken with Parkinson’s disease a few years ago, the indomitable Berardi nevertheless continues to play, readapting his technique to compensate for his affliction. The musician/poet/painter is also the subject of Playing with Parkinson’s, a documentary being produced by area filmmaker Burrill Crohn. “Sangeeta’s such an amazing artist, such a unique and inspiring individual—like John, I knew I just had to help tell his story,” says Crohn, adding that filming is set to culminate with a recording session led by Berardi at NRS Studio in Catskill this summer. “Most other musicians would just give up if they were in [Berardi’s] shoes. But to him [playing has] gone from being largely about virtuosity to being more about, as he calls it, ‘the vibrations.’ It’s about going deeper.” (Clips of the film can be seen at www.playingwithparkinsons.com.)

Sunjump has also begun nurturing rising talent in the form of two discs by saxophonist Mitch Kessler: his 2009 debut, Erratica , and its just-out follow-up, Der Erlkönig. “I’ve had a long association with John, dating back a few years to the [now gone] jam sessions at the Pig in Saugerties,” says the Albany-area tenor. “So when I finally felt ready to make my first record, I was already really comfortable playing with John and his trio [which also includes bassist Ira Coleman and drummer Peter O’Brien]. I’m excited to be a part of his label, because it focuses on progressive music, which fits John, musically: He’s about pushing the envelope instead of being formulaic.”

The remaining titles in the Sunjump catalog thus far include Inyo, a tense and spidery 2009 offering by Esposito and his erstwhile Second Sight bandmates Marx and Siegel, and last year’s Orisha, another sparkling set by the pianist’s regular trio; Second Sight’s unissued 1987 follow-up, Tiger Tracks, is set to emerge this year. “With Sunjump I haven’t been making money, but as long as I don’t lose any it’s fine,” says Esposito, who also gigs with Latin ensemble Mambo Kikongo. “It’s true that the old model of the record industry is collapsing, but for working musicians CDs still make sense. Not just as a way to preserve their music, but to have something to sell at shows. I’m just trying to keep creating situations where I get to work with other people. I feel like if I didn’t do that it wouldn’t happen. And the label is a really good way to do it. You do what you can.”
www.sunjumprecords.com

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