Perhaps it’s appropriate that the snowy mountain logo of Peak Records also implies something of a challenging climb. Before you hear too many more cries about how narrowminded smooth jazz/Adult Contemporary playlists, prohibitive marketing costs and increasing competition for airplay and shelf space spell doom for independent labels, climb over the apparent obstacles and witness the Malibu, California based label’s growth since becoming a joint venture with Concord Records in 2000.
Label co-founders Andi Howard and Russ Freeman have rode the tide in the smooth jazz game long enough to spot and sign winners with all-important built-in fan bases. Their roster of veterans includes Freeman’s 17 years and going strong supergroup The Rippingtons (which Howard has managed from the start) and saxmen Eric Marienthal and Paul Taylor. When 70 year old legend Gato Barbieri decided to keep his late 90s comeback going, Peak signed him, and last year’s brilliant The Shadow of the Cat is up for Billboard’s Latin Jazz album of the year.
Last year, the influential industry publication Radio & Records nominated Peak for Best Smooth Jazz indie label of the year; this year, the R&R nomination came in the Urban AC category. That’s due to Peak’s success on the R&B side, including Phil Perry and popular 2001 releases by veteran soul divas Regina Belle and Miki Howard. Belle’s This is Regina and Howard’s Three Wishes competed in 2002 in the same Grammy category, Best Traditional R&B vocal album.
The accolades are all the sweeter considering that Howard and Freeman had tried to build Peak as a classic boutique label for nearly ten years with GRP and Windham Hill (who had deals with the Rippingtons), but continued to face, shall we say, corporate obstacles, along the way. The first non-Ripps disc boasting the Peak imprint was by a British vocalist named Mark Williamson in 1993.
“The most important element of our relationship with Concord as our partner and distributor is that we value their input, but also have total autonomy,” says Howard. “They believe in what we are doing and trust us to create and sell good music. One of the things we loved about the old GRP before the mid-Nineties regime changes was the family atmosphere where it was all about the music. That’s what we’re about, the artists and their vision. We want to make music that appeals to a lot of different people, that’s artist friendly, and that rises to the challenge of the competitive climate with clever marketing techniques. These include internet campaigns, digi-postcards and showcases to create new fan bases. It’s not always easy being an indie doing marketing promotions at major label prices, and to get the acts we want, we have to stay competitive with those majors as well. But the artist gets the experience of being with a major but with a more friendly attitude.”
Having been one of his genre’s top performers for nearly 20 years, Freeman can empathize with artists seeking a home where they feel appreciated. “In this age of corporate downsizing and consolidating, rosters are shifting pretty quickly,” he says. “Stability is hard to come by. So when they see that they’ll be the third of five artists we’re focused on rather than low on the list of 50 or 100, that’s appealing. They know they’re free to express themselves here, and understand that Peak is all about breaking new ground both creatively and from a marketing standpoint.”
She had a hit dance record in Japan under Sandy Reed at one point, and numerous majors were interested in signing her. She was introduced to the label via Jason Miles, who produced the Barbieri project, and immediately felt, as Howard says, “like these people ‘get me.’ She didn’t want to go the major route. She knew we would be the right place for her to establish herself in the 25-40 market we sell to.”
It’s easy to see why Peak is excited. Reed’s edgy yet soulful, sultry writing and singing styles have earned her comparisons to everyone from Billie Holliday to Alicia Keys, Vanessa Carlton and Michelle Branch. The label is also booming in smoothville with two hot new releases by The Rippingtons and Paul Taylor.
Fans may wonder why it took so many years for Russ Freeman to use the pun Let It Ripp as an album title, but it’s not just lip service; he’s referring to the take no prisoners, cutting loose and often live in the studio approach that Freeman and his bandmates took to the recording process. Freeman has been so impressed with the dynamics of his revamped lineup (which includes special guest Eric Marienthal on an ongoing basis) that he wanted to feature more of the energy of the live band than on any previous studio project. Freeman’s always taking his fans on musical tours through his many passions, and relocating to South Florida has fostered his Tiger Woods-like dedication to golf. The song “Mr. 3” is named for the idea that if you make a three on a par 4, you’ve birdied the hole; the album packaging features the legendary “jazz cat” on the links, swinging away.
Like Freeman, the charismatic, dreadlocked Paul Taylor builds on his success by creating new challenges for himself. On Steppin’ Out, these involve using live horns and drums for the first time, playing the vocorder and connecting with Rex Rideout and Barry J. Eastmond, two of modern R&B’s most acclaimed and legendary producers. The vibe on Steppin’ Out is decidedly split between West and East Coasts, as he worked on six tracks in L.A. with Rideout (who first suggested the horns and drums) and five in Manhattan with Eastmond, who encouraged Taylor to include the Herbie Hancock retro vibe of the vocoder—which has also proven a big hit live. It’s classic Taylor cool, but with many impressive new twists.
HEY RUSS: Because this is the blues issue, it made sense to ask Freeman about one of the wilder elements of The Ripps live gig over the years—his crowd pleasing medley of classic Jimi Hendrix tunes “Purple Haze,” “Fire” and “Star Spangled Banner” (a la the classic Woodstock performance). The band did it off the cuff one time and the fan response never let up; it’s now an essential staple of an increasingly more aggressive contemporary jazz experience.
“I think they respond to it because it’s a refreshing break from the sometimes constrictive mode that they’re used to hearing in this genre, and it’s a blast both to play and to listen to,” he says. “I grew up more as a classical guitar buff, but got into blues when I moved to L.A. and started appreciating guys like Stevie Ray Vaughn and Steve Lukather. Hanging around studios, I could see the way young guitarists were tracing back to Hendrix. Nobody comes close to him as an icon or guitar wizard. Hendrix took the blues and put it in the rock format, using a fuzz box, wah wah and other effects. He packaged the blues vocabulary in a new way. I’ve heard that before he died, he was really leaning more towards wanting to record jazz. That would have been interesting.”
Freeman is happy to do his part introducing blues/rock elements to smooth jazz, and appreciates guys like Jeff Golub who do the same. But he believes to be a true bluesman, you’ve got to be like B.B. King and live the life. “I’m always amazed at the depth of influence smooth jazz guitarists have that we don’t get to hear on radio, and much of that is blues,” he says. “But we haven’t really lived it like the legends did. If you’re looking for real blues, smooth jazz just isn’t the place for it.”
FAVORITE BLUES RECORDINGS:
1) Larry Carlton, Renegade Gentleman (1993, GRP) – Just in case all his lighter hearted smooth jazz success made us forget the roaring rock/blues side of this legendary guitarist, he broke free for this incredibly credible, blistering jam session featuring his regular harmonica player Terry McMillan.
2) B.B. King, Blues Summit (MCA, 1993)
3) Blues Brothers 2000 (Universal, 1997)
4) Tony Bennett, Playin’ With My Friends (Bennett Sings the Blues) (Columbia, 2001)
5) Eric Clapton, From the Cradle (1994, Reprise)
Posted by Jonathan Widran at August 12, 2003 6:03 PM