Jazz Detective, Archivist Zev Feldman’s New Label, Kicks Off With Exclusive Record Store Day Vinyl From Piano Legend Ahmad Jamal

Jazz producer and executive Zev Feldman has long had the nickname of “the jazz detective” for his penchant for finding previously unreleased tapes from the genre’s greats to put out as high-profile archival releases. Now he’s putting that moniker to use for his own label, Jazz Detective, which will make its debut on Record Store Day’s Black Friday edition with a pair live double-albums by the legendary pianist Ahmad Jamal, both captured in Seattle in the mid-1960s and never before heard by the public.

Having his own imprint doesn’t mean that Feldman plans to be any less busy for any of the other labels he works for in putting together vintage jazz projects — including, most frequently and famously, Resonance Records, which always issues some of the most collectible RSD limited edition vinyl pieces, but also Blue Note, Verve, Elemental and Reel to Real. But Jazz Detective Records will be an additional place for him to work on passion projects… a category that already covers just about everything he does, as Feldman brings to light never-released work by Bill Evans, Chet Baker, Jaco Pastorius, Art Tatum, Monty Alexander and other icons of jazz.

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The two volumes that reach independent record stores on Black Friday, “Emerald City Nights: Live at the Penthouse 1963-1964” and “Emerald City Nights: Live at the Penthouse 1965-1966,” will come out in the vinyl format as limited editions of 3,000 for the U.S. and 5,000 for the world. The CD and digital download editions will follow a week later — and have no limits — as has become the custom for most of the projects Feldman works on, which get lots of publicity and a lingering boost from the hunger that jazz fans have to get the audiophile-grade LP editions during the short time they remain in stores.

“Doing this is not for the faint of heart,” says Feldman, who notes that these projects sometimes can take a decade to come to fruition, after the tapes are discovered, deals are made and rights-holders are paid, for releases that are extravagantly packaged and can have slim profit margins. “But there’s been so much good will and generosity, and we’re having fun. I mean, we smile at the end of the day. I leap out of bed in the morning with the promise of the new day.”

The Jamal releases (which will be followed by a third and final “Live at the Penthouse” volume at some point next year) represent but a fraction of what Feldman has coming out in some form. Just one week ago, with its proximity to RSD Black Friday just coincidental, Blue Note put out another one of Feldman’s projects, a triple-LP by Elvin Jones, “Revival (Live at Pookie’s Pub).” Another release coming for Record Store Day is a reissue of one of the most popular projects he did for Resonance in the past, Pastorius’ “Truth, Liberty and Soul.” (They didn’t lie when they called the previous edition years ago an exclusive; this so-called re-release has a new and different remastering, done by engineer Kevin Gray instead of Bernie Grundman, as well as different packaging. The new edition of 2,000 units has “shipped sold out,” Feldman says.)

The Jazz Detective imprint is not Feldman’s sole 2022 start-up. It’s actually part of a larger label group he’s started up called Deep Digs, which will use the genre-agnostic name for releases the producer-exec is preparing from non-jazz genres, like a live album by rock ‘n’ roll pioneer Sister Rosetta Tharpe, from long-buried tapes that he recently came across in his detective work.

His elevation of Jamal this year is partly personal; Feldman, who recently moved from L.A. back to Maryland, grew up in Washington, D.C. listening to the pianist with his mother. But it’s not that strictly personal — Jamal was a household name in America at the time, as difficult as it may be in 2022 to think of such a thing truly being the case for anybody outside of a Jon Batiste. (Speaking of whom: Batiste was interviewed for the new albums’ liner notes.) It’s staggering to be reminded that Jamal had a top 10 all-genre album in 1958, “At the Pershing: But Not for Me”… and that it stayed in the top 10 for 108 weeks, as the country’s love affair with jazz was flourishing. Jamal may not have remained a fixture of the bestseller charts in the rock era, but it’s not as if he were forgotten, either, as he’s been celebrated in the 21st century by the Kennedy Center Honors and with a Grammys lifetime achievement award, among other plaudits.

There’s one difference, frankly, between Jamal and most of the artists whose work Feldman is working to release: He’s still alive, at 92, and was out gigging as recently as 2020. He was an enthusiastic participant in these new Jazz Detective releases, too. And that’s not always the case when Feldman does have the occasion to work with a living artist, either, as some of them are critical of their own past work and/or have some disinterest due to age. But with Jamal, it was a case of: Do meet your heroes.

“I knew Mr. Jamal had a reputation for being picky and for not always wanting to revisit the past, like a lot of artists,” says Feldman. “But Ahmad’s representative called me, and said, ‘Well, you’re gonna love hearing this: Ahmad is flipping out over this music. He loves it. It’s bringing back all sorts of memories.’ He was at a very exciting time in his career. It’s impossible for me to articulate this versus someone like Monty Alexander or Ramsey Lewis (who died in September, but contributed to the liner notes before he passed) or another pianist. But I’ve been so taken with Ahmad for a long time and in the process we’ve gotten to know each other a little bit. He supervised every aspect of the production from going through the audio to reviewing the masters. We would present all our photo selections for the package for him to sign off and approve, and we sent him a list of interview subjects, which he hand-picked and made some requests of his own… and the best part: ‘Hey Zev, let me sit down with you and tell you about what was going on during this period.’ He was able to really help us put together this project that to me has all the feels. If you’re gonna get in the Ahmad time machine going way back, what a gift to have these documents that exist.”

Ahmad Jamal Record Store Day Black Friday releases
Ahmad Jamal Record Store Day Black Friday releases

Feldman discussed how Jazz Detective and Deep Digs got added to his busy portfolio, in partnership with Elemental.

“The guys at Elemental Music, Jordi Soley and Carlos Agustin, who are based in Barcelona, were the first label to approach me more than 10 years ago and say, ‘Man, we really love the work you’re doing at Resonance. Are you exclusive to Mr. Klabin at Resonance?’ And they subscribe to the same code of ethics that I subscribe to working at Resonance, doing things above board, paying the lead families, paying the sidemen, paying music publishing, accounting for royalties and doing all the right things.

“And I’ve always had this aspiration, like a lot of people, to have my own label, but I started thinking to myself, what would I do different? Well, why does it have to be a (single) label? Why don’t we do a music label group? And that’s where, on the tail end of the pandemic, the idea of Deep Digs was formed with an idea of doing thoughtful, meaningful curation on all sorts of archival projects. I don’t just wanna be the jazz detective guy. I am so grateful that people know me for that moniker, but the truth is, I’ve been a record collector for the majority of my life. And I’m not just living on a diet of jazz.” (Feldman also listens to a lot of classic rock and even the Misfits, for what it’s worth.) “I love the past, I love nostalgia and I love learning about the history and the roots of so many different types of music. So I had this idea of not competing with the other stuff but doing something that wouldn’t get in the way that would allow me to flex a more creative muscle and bring projects into the world that are great.” Besides going off the beaten path with the upcoming Sister Rosetta Tharpe album, he says, “I would love to be able to produce some archival classical recordings. People don’t know this about me, but I was very lucky in my early 20s when I represented Deutsche Grammophon, Decca and Philips, working at Polygram and Universal. I have a thirst and a quest, so I want to put out piano sonatas from certain recital pianists that I like, and that’s something that we’re working toward right now. I want to do things that really don’t fit.”

What else is in the hopper with the other labels he works with? “It’s going to be a lot of fun next year. I’m also working with Elemental on more special Bill Evans projects of previously unissued recordings. One’s going to be a three-LP set, one will be a single LP, and those will be for next year. I’m working on two Cannonball Adderly projects for the folks at Elemental as well. And the big thing for us will be this one Chet Baker studio project of unissued recordings from the ‘70s. Next year we’re gonna be looking at releasing previously unreleased recordings by the legendary jazz vibraphonist Cal Tjader, and that will be a two-CD/three-LP set. On the Jazz Detective label, we’re doing these Sonny Stitt recordings from the Left Bank, as part of a bigger campaign of Left Bank recordings that you’re going to hear about with Cory Weeds and his Reel to Real label. Cory and I are producing two projects together for Reel To Real in addition to my Sonny Stitt release on Jazz Detective. One of them is unisssued Shirley Scott recordings, and the other one is Walter Bishop Jr. and Harold Vick from the late ‘60s. They’re all going to come out and be promoted together at the same time to celebrate the legacy of the Left Bank Jazz Society.

“And listen, at Resonance next year, holy smokes. Sit down, people. I’m gonna be putting out about three hours worth of previously unissued Art Tatum recordings that the world’s going to hear for the first time. It’s an extraordinary find. I’m also working on an amazing project with the great Sonny Rollins. It’s a multi-LP set of recordings which are very important.”

Why so spread out? “What I’ve learned is not every album, every recording, every tape, every project is a good fit. They’re not cookie cutter like that. Oftentimes it’s really driven by the passion, this kinship that we have towards certain artists. So, like, the guys at Elemental love Chet Baker; they want be the Chet Baker label. … But the work that I do Resonance, and at Blue Note, really a very big priority for me too. And I want to say that it’s because of working especially with George Klabin (his mentor and co-president at Resonance), who is so generous, he doesn’t care that I work for other people. He says, ‘The way I see it, you’re doing good things in the world. It’s good that this stuff is coming out. Hey, I can’t do all the projects. There’s plenty to go around.’ And he’s had that sort of generosity and I’m just really lucky.”

With the semi-annual Record Store Day events in April and October, “It helps those shops out. This is gonna be like a needed shot, an injection for them.” But Feldman’s projects are very much helped in return. “We found a formula that’s working with these limited editions. We have, generally speaking, an idea of if the project is gonna be sustainable, but because of that limited edition format, because of those people that go and and line up every Record Store Day event, we seem to have cracked the formula that’s working. You know, it’s not about the long tail always,” he adds, noting that the LP editions usually sell out almost instantaneously, while most customers still are happy to pick up the other versions at leisure, after the vinyl diehards. “Thanks to Record Store Day, we’re able to look on paper and know if it’s gonna work or not. And that’s why I’ve been able to share the magic with other people.”

After some experimentation, the release formula boils down to: Put the LPs out on RSD, do the CDs and digital downloads exactly one week later (there used to be a longer lag, but having two separate publicity campaigns was untenable)… and the streaming? Maybe later, maybe never.

“People have a different take on that. You know, I work for some clients that are like, ‘Nope, we’re putting out the streaming at the same time,’ and I’m like, ‘OK, I respect that. That’s OK.’ But I do really come from the mindset of, I want the physical first, which is still what allows us to make this whole endeavor possible. With these Ahmad Jamal albums, there’ll be a couple of singles that’ll be released, so we can get them out there for people to stream. I’d say some time down the road we’ll make the whole album maybe eventually for streaming, although that’s not the plan right now. You’ll find a couple of tracks to whet your whistle on the digital streaming platforms. I want to give people a reason to put something on their shelf. I mean, we should have these beautiful, tangible, physical goods that I love. I still believe in physical. I really do. I think it’s a different sort of experience, and you’re talking to a guy that streams music constantly.

“Maybe I’m not always the majority, but I think that there’s been certainly a major renaissance in people coming to records, and it’s made me very hopeful about what the future can be, because again, it’s allowed the numbers to work. These are very difficult projects with a lot of toppings that go onto that. You’re getting the supreme pizza, with the photographs and the liner notes and the design and the LP mastering and all these things that go into it.”

Of the big picture, Feldman says, “This is important stuff, and as George Klabin, my mentor, my friend, my co-president and the founder of Resonance told me, ‘Zev, these projects are gonna live past our lifetimes.’ So there’s a lot of responsibility. Heck, I don’t want anybody cursing the work that I do if I’m not around. I’m not the only person out there doing this work. I’ve been very lucky to catch fire and get some attention and find a lot of love. But I feel like to be able to be swimming in this pool, working peer to peer with some of the folks that I get to work with and just knowing others, it’s a tremendous honor. It’s been a great run. And I think 2023 is gonna be an amazing year. Hopefully with the support of the fans out there, we’ll bring some more music to everyone’s collections, and let’s raise our glass to these artists and let’s just talk about them. Let’s celebrate them. And in the case of Ahmad Jamal, he’s here, so let’s tell him we love him.”

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