A conversation with three-time Grammy award winning record producer Carl Griffin
(Cover photo: Carl Griffin)
In the Brave New World of digital music, streaming radio stations and instant access, Carl Griffin has some tried and true lessons in a music recording industry in which he has signed and produced new talent for years. A resume that includes 15 years as Senior VP of A&R Records and the promotion & marketing of GRP Records, a standard-setting quality output of contemporary jazz music and artists who remain household names today (Lee Ritenour, Dave Grusin, David Sanborn, Arturo Sandoval, Joe Sample, The Crusaders, The Rippingtons and more). Enter AlFi Records, where Mr. Griffin is now Senior VP, teamed with founder Albare (Albert Dadon) virtuoso jazz guitarist, songwriter, producer and music promoter from Australia. Together they’ve launched their new jazz label, like “taking a plunge in a pool where you know the water is cool” Albare reflects, “Eventually you just jump in.”
Albare’s musical reach-out led him to calling-on the music production and marketing talents of Carl Griffin, as this new recording label seeks to broaden the discussion and reach of jazz to a truly international level. Mr. Griffin’s ear for talent speaks for itself (having signed such music luminaries as jazz vocalist extraordinaire Diana Krall, the legendary 10-time Grammy award winning jazz trumpeter Arturo Sandoval, and produced music with Ramsey Lewis, Maurice White, Grover Washington and B.B. King). Now — he’s combined forces with Albare’s “passion” to personally represent other jazz musicians. Mr. Griffin re-emphasizes the mission, “Albare started the label (AlFi Records) because he felt that the companies today don’t cater to artists. And being a musician himself, he truly understands the needs of artists to have a home where they feel the company cares for them, and not only looks out for their music, but also cares about them as human beings.”
The standard jazz one-liner, “How do you make a million in jazz? … You start with a billion”, doesn’t apply here. Albare’s journey by launching AlFi Records is love over gold, tapping into a deep well of international resources of exceptional young talent and also established musicianship that he has surrounded himself with over a very diverse and international career. The rich mixture of jazz sounds that represent the AlFi Record debut include five featured releases in 2015, setting a high standard at the starting gate. These include Arturo Sandoval’s “Live at Yoshi’s”, Albare’s “Only Human”, Phil Turcio’s “Signals”, César Orozco’s (and his group Kamarata Jazz) ”No Limits For Tumbao” and Joe Chindamo and Zoē Black’s “The New Goldberg Variations.”
Additionally more recent releases show the breadth of diversity of international sounds and influences including Australian artist Darryn Farrugia’s “Seeds”(2016), an exceptional drummer turned composer (whose credits include work with B.B. King, Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne and Eartha Kitt). The power of musicians knowing each other’s beat, and complex intensity with a smart bright sound — mark this session of jazz fusion. And Axel Tosca Laugart, a gifted Cuban-born, New York based, world-jazz pianist with a self-titled release, an intense Corea-like keyboard work with accents of Cuban, Latin and African instrumentation. All of this bubbling-up from a grounding in jazz from a musical family that includes his mother, Xiomara Laugart, internationally acclaimed singer known as “The Voice of Cuba”.
Please sample some music for a feast of variety in accomplished and inventive styles, tempo and inflections, brought out in this exciting and dynamic new recording label. (Click on any of the images to open its link on a new tab.)
AlFi (which stands for Art Lab For Innovation) is seeking a global audience. But regardless of the exceptional musicianship, jazz has always faced an uphill battle to attract wider listenership. In a recent interview I spoke with Mr. Griffin about the inherent challenge to put music in front of the right cultural ears, “NPR Jazz Radio or smooth jazz radio (stations) will only spin a kind of Latin jazz record 2 to 5 times a week…if it’s a new artist, it may take them (NPR Radio) 6 months to play it. So what we have to count on is social media to give us the connection to the marketplace.”
Enter college streaming radio, which has become a very important social media portal by which new talent in jazz (and all other music genre for that matter) is introduced. Mr. Griffin speaks pointedly about the difference in radio formats, “NPR will only play the more syrupy stuff ”, thereby selectively ignoring a wide band of other jazz styles, “college music radio is not restricted to play one thing.” The takeaway: Selecting a less confined, non-format based streaming resource, now more than ever, is crucial for Mr. Griffin and other independent record producers to provide the most valuable outlet for jazz players to find an audience on the digital air-waves.
Returning to the current releases from AlFi Records, I am again struck by the continued creativity and on-going collaboration of established musicians which never tire in their experimentation. In example, stand-outs include the intricate interpretations of movie soundtracks found on master guitarist Albare’s “Dreamtime”, and the 10-time Grammy award winning legendary trumpeter Arturo Sandoval letting it all hang-out in a live performance in San Francisco on his release “Live at Yoshi’s”, which moves through a myriad of jazz styles. But equally surprising and rewarding are the succinct styles and expressions of the newer artists, such as Darryn Farrugia, Phil Turcio and Axel Tosca Laugart. Clearly, outside of classical music, jazz is still where you learn your instrument.
From a production and marketing standpoint, part of the challenge is harnessing all this amazing instrumental talent with a younger musician’s tendency to solo and “show off their chops.” Mr. Griffin often finds himself in the position of reminding and directing jazz artists to recognize the importance of melody, “melody is king in my world – give me a 4 or 8 bar intro – if you listen to the classics -– the Art Blakey (& The Jazz Messengers) -– all of Miles (Davis) – the minute you heard the first 4 bars you knew the name of the song automatically.” Steering a direction, Mr. Griffin has to play the devil’s advocate, even when he speaks to well established veteran musicians, “Don’t change, but, we are living in a generation with a very short listening span –- you have to grab them very quickly.” The message seems to remain the same, whether the audience is old or new to jazz — the melody relates to catching the listener -– you still need that hook.
On a parallel subject, facing Mr. Griffin and artist Albare of AlFi Records and other independent record producers today, is the diffusion of music sources which offers a double-edged sword, creating a challenge for finding the jazz audience. In my discussion with Mr. Griffin he made it clear, as you seek to distinguish and brand your label, all exposure is not good exposure, “It dilutes the music (referencing Spotify, Pandora and Sirius Radio music streaming services as an example) — “It’s not offering a mixture of music — instead it becomes this is “jazz”, this is “smooth jazz”, this is “rock”. Mr. Griffin closes this conversation with an observation about radio broadcast content; “Formatted systems -– very boring — if you know how to program properly you can play Miles Davis, Aretha Franklin and the Beatles –- back to back.”
As I listen to Albare’s first release on AlFi Records, “Only Human” (2015), and his brilliant guitar-work, and the bright upbeat jazz-fusion sound with the younger accompaniment, complexity and technical ability of pianists Axel Tosca and Phil Turcio, it reinforces my belief in the constant re-creation that jazz offers. This abstract quality however walks with and needs helping hands. As long as record producers like Carl Griffin and multi-faceted artists like Albare care enough for the cause of jazz, we, the listener, will continue to enjoy the quality of musicianship and innovation that drives this genre of music. ∎