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Europe’s love affair with jazz began with records. During the 1930s, members of the Hot Club de France insatiably collected whatever they could get their hands on, the sounds of which influenced a virtuoso Gypsy guitarist named Django Reinhardt to introduce Europe’s first jazz sub-genre. BBC radio broadcast jazz records throughout much of Western Europe. When World War II ended, American G.I.s departed a Europe obsessed with the liberating sounds of big bands, Dixieland and small-group swing. By 1952, Europe had its first independent jazz record label in Copenhagen: Storyville.
In 1958, a gifted audio engineer and amateur pianist named Hans Georg Brunner-Schwer built a recording studio above the living room of his Villingen villa in the German Black Forest. In 1961, Brunner-Schwer enticed pianist Oscar Peterson to perform for a small group of friends at his home following Peterson’s performance in Zurich. The concert was recorded and the seeds of the MPS (Musik Produktion Schwartzwald or Black Forest Music Production) label were sown. Peterson was reportedly so impressed with the sound quality that he made the soirées a yearly event, proclaiming, “I never heard myself like this before.” Peterson was under contract to Verve, so the tapes remained private.
In 1963, Brunner-Schwer produced recordings by pianists Wolfgang Dauner, Horst Jankowski and others for the SABA label. When Brunner-Schwer left SABA in 1968, he founded MPS coinciding with Oscar Peterson’s departure from Verve. The premier Peterson recordings remain a staple of the MPS catalog, recently re-released on 180-gram vinyl as an exquisite six-LP/eight-CD set, Exclusively for My Friends. Among Peterson’s many excellent recordings, these inspired trio and solo sides distinguish themselves as truly classic. (Another Peterson standout, Motions & Emotions, features tasteful large ensemble orchestrations by Claus Ogerman.)
Much like its similarly famous German counterpart, ECM, the MPS label prides itself on a sonically superior catalogue of more than 500 jazz, classical and avant-garde titles. MPS’ recent reissue program consists of remastered 180-gram vinyl of its most revered titles, along with digipak CDs, high-res downloads and select reel-to-reel tapes. MPS is now a part of Edel, a company that owns one of Europe’s leading vinyl pressing plants.
“There’s a reason why the famous MPS slogan ‘most perfect sound’ came into being,” says the label’s manager, Timo Jäger. “We aim to preserve the character of the original recordings without changing the sound aesthetics.” Over time, sessions branched out from Villingen to include various studios in Europe and New York, as well as festivals and clubs.
Through its first decade and a half, MPS’ catalogue gained international recognition as Europe’s largest and most fastidious purveyor of jazz. This year’s crop of reissues provides a solid cross section. For sheer musical excitement and infectious joy, top honors go to Montreux Alexander: The Monty Alexander Trio Live! At the Montreux Jazz Festival. Solid hard bop comes via saxophonist Joe Henderson’s Mirror Mirror (with Chick Corea) and trumpeter Freddie Hubbard’s The Hub of Hubbard. Bill Evans: Symbiosis features Ogerman’s orchestra backing Evans’ working trio of Eddie Gomez and Marty Morrell.
Brunner-Schwer’s love affair with world music can be appreciated through Brazilian guitarist Baden Powell’s Images on Guitar. Ella Fitzgerald’s Sunshine of Your Love comprises a split set of late-’60s rock and pop fare, with an orchestra, and more simpatico standards backed by pianist Tommy Flanagan’s trio. Flights of fusion manifest in pianist George Duke’s early synth sounds on the two-disc set The Inner Source. And hard-core Duke fans will appreciate the seven-LP box,The Era Will Prevail: The MPS Studio Years 1973-76.
Numerous German artists are found in the catalogue, as well. Jäger explains: “For a German jazz musician to find international recognition, especially from the U.S., remains a rarity. The first one who comes to my mind is Rolf Kühn.” Kühn, now 92, and his crystalline clarinet are being re-introduced to the U.S. with an as-yet-unannounced new recording, reissues and a nine-LP boxed set, The Best Is Yet to Come. More stellar German artist reissues include trombonist Albert Mangelsdorff’s And His Friends, guitarist Volker Kriegel’s Spectrum and pianist Wolfgang Dauner’s The Oimels.
Brunner-Schwer died in 2004 and MPS has been passed around from Philips to Polydor to Motor Music to Universal to Edel, none of which has alluded to a shelving of the catalogue. “Twenty-twenty-one was a bit of a transitional period,” says Jäger, “not only due to COVID but also as we’re making changes on our international setup. While we are working on many new reissues that will come out in 2022, we will also put the focus back on frontline artists. There will be familiar MPS faces like [vocalist] China Moses releasing a new album, and also new big names that will join the label. But for now these names remain a secret.” - James Rozzi
Featured photos courtesy of MPS Records.