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ACT Records: ‘It doesn’t happen like this in the corporate world’

When its star artist Esbjörn Svensson died in a scuba accident, ACT Records almost called it a day. Instead, it’s just reached its 20th anniversary on top of the jazz world

If Stax, Motown or Sun Records figure in pop iconography as labels almost as famous as the legends they launched, Blue Note, Riverside, Impulse! or ECM are jazz music’s equivalents – even if they are less likely to wind up as answers in a pub quiz. In its heyday in the 1950s and 60s, Blue Note was almost as widely admired for Esquire designer Reid Miles‘s cool typography and brooding, deep-hued cover images (shots that took you straight to the bar of a midnight Manhattan jazz club, boiling with noise) as it was for its star signings of the era – Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Wayne Shorter. Germany’s ECM has a comparably glamorous catalogue of stars (the post-60s generation of innovators from America’s Keith Jarrett to Norway’s Jan Garbarek, and a constantly expanding roster of gifted newcomers) and its own instantly recognisable graphics.

Now comes another strong contender for the same podium – ACT Records. Like ECM, it is a Munich-based independent with a striking house style; this year it celebrates its 20th anniversary. ACT is bucking the worldwide trend of declining CD sales over a period in which major-label commercial activity has shrunk by half. In common with many creative, jazz-rooted record companies, it is also the labour of love of a single enthusiast, Siegfried “Siggi” Loch, a voluble, effusively energetic jazz-lover and former Warner Brothers executive.

Unlike some jazz producers and label owners whose apprenticeship was as players or fans, Loch has the traditional record industry in his bones. He started at the bottom, as a salesman for EMI in 1960, before becoming managing director of the German arm of the newly formed Liberty Records/United Artists label, with special responsibility for the Blue Note catalogue. Across the decades from the 60s to the 90s (a period in which he was CEO of WEA Music in Hamburg, and eventually WEA European president in London), Loch was constantly on the verge of deals to fund his own record label, only to see them founder on corporate takeovers and boardroom bust-ups. By 1988, he was close to a funding agreement with Polygram, until his contact there got fired “and the new guy said, ‘Why do we need jazz?’ So I decided it was the last time I made that mistake, and I would do nothing I couldn’t handle and pay for myself.”

ACT Records finally got underway in 1992, at first with back-catalogue material Loch had access to, including fusion saxist Klaus Doldinger’s popular Passport band, and classic blues artists including John Lee Hooker. Then came Jazzpana, Loch’s own idea for a jazz-flamenco crossover performed by Spanish jazz and traditional musicians, the late American saxophonist Michael Brecker and big-band arrangements by Vince Mendoza. It was the start of a succession of genre-bending initiatives that might have seemed out of character for a producer who was a long-time blues and Sidney Bechet fan. But the seeds had been planted in Loch’s first job at EMI, when his work included handling offbeat imports; he became fascinated by flamenco, Indian and Argentinian music. “I heard a direct connection between the blues and all kinds of elementary folk musics around the world,” he says. “That’s still crucial to what this label’s all about.”

ACT’s artists today reflect the planet-wide diversity of 21st-century jazzmaking, running from Korea’s Youn Sun Nah (a big-selling singer in France and Germany as well as her homeland) and Leo Tolstoy’s vocalist great-great-grandaughter Viktoria, to cutting-edge Asian-American pianist/composer Vijay Iyer. Finnish virtuoso Iiro Rantala, Polish film composer and producer Leszek Mozdzer, and Britain’s Gwilym Simcock are among several gifted ACT pianists who are rooted in classical music as well as jazz; Mozdzer even makes the pop charts in Poland on the side. The only shadow over the company’s birthday celebrations this year is the tragic absence of Esbjörn Svensson, the Swedish pianist and leader of the charismatic EST trio, who died in a scuba-diving accident in 2008. Svensson’s worldwide popularity (his 2005 album Viaticum sold 100,000 – a rare coup for a jazz record) and that of ACT funk trombonist Nils Landgren have been the financial cornerstones of ACT’s success, and the tragedy almost led Loch, by that time in his late 60s, to call it a day. “On the Sunday morning of 15 June 2008,” Loch remembers, “I got the call saying Esbjörn had died. At that point, knowing I’d just lost this incredible artist and close friend, I felt, ‘I’ve achieved everything I’ve ever wanted to. I’ll never find anyone like that again. Do I really want to go on?’ It took me a long time to realise I did, for the sake of his memory, and the other artists on the label.”

Loch has unequivocally stated that his musicians “have to possess the absolute will to captivate the audience”, though he rarely interferes in how they decide to do it – a populist impulse that distinguishes his tastes from those of the more private and ascetic Manfred Eicher at ECM. But Loch believes the two share a devotion to “a kind of work that isn’t about corporate identities, or trying to guess the market”. Eicher once echoed the same sentiment when he said: “The producer’s role is to capture the music he likes, and to present it to those who don’t know it yet.”

Gwilym Simcock, the 2011 Mercury prize jazz nominee for his ACT solo album Good Days at Schloss Elmau, says he benefited greatly from Loch’s intuitions in the making of his upcoming Lighthouse album with saxophonist Tim Garland and drummer Asaf Sirkis. “We’d made the music very rhythmic and strong, because Asaf has a rock-drummer’s energy but uses a specially designed kit that allows him to apply that force but at half the volume. Siggi liked it, but he still insisted on getting us back into the studio to record two new tracks that were closer to Celtic folk music and left more open space. He was right – now the album has a better shape and more lyricism. It’s typical of him. He has taste, and he’s totally into the making of music, and he’s such a charismatic and friendly guy that it makes you try even harder to play something he’s going to like.”

Loch is less involved in day-to-day office work now, but retains his producer’s role, and keeps a close eye on the artwork. “I have somebody in the office keeping up with digital developments, but downloading’s only 10% of our business at the moment, and they say it’s more like 30% across the industry in general. I think that’s because the public respects what we do, and how we do it. I hope they also sense the family feeling between the artists. They often collaborate in each other’s work, as Esbjörn did on an album of Viktoria Tolstoy’s Shining On You without wanting a piano credit for it, and as the Blue Note stars of the 60s did, and many ECM artists do. It doesn’t happen like that in the corporate world. My only regret is why I waited to be the oldest new independent owner in the business before I figured that out.”

Leszek Mozdzer plays his tribute to Polish composer Krzysztof Komeda at the Purcell Room, London, on 1 February. The Lighthouse Trio’s new album is released in April. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds