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Review: Matthias Winckelmann (ENJA) interview

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Review: Interview with Matthias Winckelmann (ENJA Records)
(Kings Place, April 27th, 2010, review by Neal Richardson)

A cross-section of British jazz people came out on Tuesday to Kings Place, to meet a true legend of the European jazz industry: Matthias Winckelmann, the founder of Enja Records. He gave us a fascinating lesson in the heart-and-head economics of the music business, and regaled us with some of the myriad anecdotes he has amassed while running ENJA, one of jazz’s most prolific independent record label/publishing companies, for nearly forty years.

The stories kept flowing and the time flew. We were drawn into the fascinating highs and lows of being at the personal helm of an enterprise that has always been “on the edges” of an already-precarious business. The stories and questions were interspersed with fascinating video clips of Enja artists, including Abdullah Ibrahim, Ferenc Snetberger,(on video above) and Robert Fonseca.

A theme of threes emerged: the first of these was Alyn Shipton’s description of Enja “lovely, eclectic, personal”: it would be hard to think of a higher epithet nor a more admirable aim for a jazz label.

Matthias told the story of the company, and how it all started, from early jazz experiences, to the Damascene moment when he heard his first Charlie Parker record. God, isn’t it better when a business is run from the heart rather than the pocket?! It certainly gave your writer great hope that it IS possible!

Encouraged by early successes with LPs by Mal Waldron, which garnered Enja distribution proper sales in Japan, Matthias pushed ahead with the determination: “I always wanted new music and artists, not a museum!”

His method? The second threesome of the evening: “Music influenced by indigenous culture, classical, and jazz”. It is this that makes European jazz so strong, he said.

The Enja net has been cast wide over the years. Stateside too, with names tumbling out such as Tommy Flanagan, Ben Webster, Eric Dolphy, Lee Konitz and… some enthralling stories about Chet Baker. In reference to the latter’s substance problems: “Normally you can’t work with someone in that place… But with him, [I would] again, ANYTIME”. It was bittersweet to hear that at the time of Chet’s fatal Amsterdam hotel-window “fall”, he was “in a very positive state, with lots of plans”…Winckelmann cast doubt on the suicide theory.

There was one more trinity: as we were wondering how Enja had survived having such a refreshingly artistic bias, Matthias explained: “I’ve been happy if 1/3 of our records break even, 1/3 make a profit, and 1/3 lose!”. Considering the norm for our well-heeled pop cousins (for whom the jazz departments have often served as a “useful tax write-off,” in Matthias’ opinion) is 10% success, 90% fail.

So maybe Sammy Cahn’s lyric isn’t such a bad model for a business after all:

So if you’re smart,
Really smart,
Only trust your heart

An extremely well-spent evening (more please!)

Video above of the Ferenc Snetberger/ Arild Andersen/ Paolo Vinaccia trio at the 2005 Veszprem Festival, Hungary 2005- Available on DVD)

The Matthias Winckelmann interview was organized by LondonJazz in partnership with Harmonia Mundi (UK) and Kings Place.

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