The Thrill of the Pursuit: Hidden Jazz Uncovered By Zev Feldman

Record executive Zev Feldman has a decades-long career in marketing, sales, production, management, talent promotion and acquisition. His ability to ferret out the gems in a complicated and always-changing world of music sets him apart as a kind of “news hound” for the next big thing, whether it’s an emerging artist or rediscovered reels from an iconic jazz master.

Keeping jazzophiles on the edges of their seat, Feldman has much more about to hit the airwaves. Look for the upcoming release of amazing new music from Bill Evans, Sonny Rollins, Monty Alexander and more [see below for details].

What’s your music background?

I fooled around with guitar and trumpet a little bit while I was growing up, but I didn’t really stick with it. I’ve always been intensely interested in music, though. I began collecting records and reading about music at a very young age. It was all self-discovery guided by my curiosity and interests. As a young boy, I was drawn to my parents’ record collection. Flipping through the LPs I was mesmerized by all the cool album covers as well as the imagination bound up in the sounds on the records. Eventually I started buying records for my own collection reflecting my evolving tastes and interests.

Throughout my life, I’ve always had this thing for nostalgia. I love things that transport me back to a certain time and era. Music does this. I have a lot of the same feelings about print media and TV, which have also been areas of fascination for me my whole life. Cartoons, too.

I got my first job in the music business when I was about 20. It was kind of funny because the town I lived in was in the suburbs, and it was hard to get a job at a record store. It was such a coveted, cool job. When I was about 15 I really wanted to work at a record store, but that was one of the “cool” jobs, so it was hard to find. Luckily, PolyGram Group Distribution (PGD) was located in Greenbelt, Maryland, close to where I grew up in Rockville, Maryland. I managed to get a job as an intern in 1994. I was a communications and broadcasting major at Montgomery Community College in Rockville, which was down the street from my parents’ home, and I was the music director of their campus radio station. It was my job to call record companies and have them send us music. That experience really helped prepare me for getting my start in the music business at PolyGram.

What was your first experience in music production?

I spent my first 15 years working on the sales and marketing side of the music business, so it wasn’t until 2008, when I began working with my boss, George Klabin, the founder of Resonance Records (and I’m proud to say, now my co-president), that I had the opportunity to work on my first production, which was Freddie Hubbard’s Pinnacle: Live & Unreleased at the Keystone Korner. I got to work on assembling the booklet, shaping the editorial, and working with the designer on the package artwork. I played a part with how everything in that package was presented. It was such a great experience for me to work with George and Duane Hubbard on that album. From that point, George let me know that if I brought projects to him that he was interested in releasing, he’d let me produce them. That was like a match to gasoline for me and I haven’t looked back since!

Name the different roles you’ve played in the recording business and what you enjoy the most.

I’ve done so many different things from being an intern, to working in the mailroom, to hanging posters in record stores and clubs as a merchandiser. I’ve been an artist development representative for jazz and classical labels owned by PolyGram (Verve, Deutsche Grammophon, Phillips); I also worked as a sales manager at Rhino Records when I was 25 overseeing sales and marketing for Northeast region including New York and Boston. After that, I worked for Universal Music Group as a salesman for six years covering the mid-Atlantic region (Maryland, Delaware, DC, Pennsylvania, Virginia, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina and Delaware). Then I was recruited by Concord Music Group in Los Angeles to be the national director of catalog sales and retail marketing; and I was also a sales manager for Fuel 2000 Records Inc./Airline Records. At Resonance Records, I began as vice-president of sales and international marketing, then I became the executive vice president/general manager and today, I am the co-president.

While there are parts of all of these jobs I’ve enjoyed over the years, I must say I enjoy producing records the most. It’s proven to be very important to have had all my previous experience, during which I learned the fundamentals of how the music business operates. It’s all gone into preparing me for doing what I’m doing now. I take all that other experience with me to my current work, whether it’s working with Resonance or Blue Note. The industry has changed a lot over the years, but many of the key metrics are still not far from where they’ve always been; for instance, knowing the difference of the sales threshold between Stan Getz and John Coltrane, or Bill Evans and Thelonious Monk.

How did you get your introduction to jazz?

My father introduced me to jazz. He had a lot of jazz in his record collection, from Miles Davis to Wes Montgomery, Nancy Wilson and many others. There are also musicians in my family who have performed at a professional level. My great uncle was Alvin “Abe” Aaron. He played with Les Brown, Jack Teagarden, Dave Pell and others. I have deep roots with many musicians in my family, so jazz is in our bloodline. Even my great grandparents had a family band that all the children played in. My great grandfather insisted that all the kids had to play an instrument. Abe Aaron is the first entry in Leonard Feather’s 1963 edition of the Encyclopedia of Jazz. It’s no surprise with a name like that!

One of my most potent memories, something that was significant in developing and solidifying my passion for jazz, goes back to when I had a job at a gas station when I was in college. I worked from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. on Friday and Saturday nights no less! I had a CD player there and I would bring in CDs that I’d pick up from my favorite record stores around town like Tower Records, Kemp Mill Music and Joe’s Record Paradise. I’d have John Coltrane or Miles Davis or Wes Montgomery or the Mahavishnu Orchestra playing all night. This music got me through the nights working the graveyard shift. I read Leonard Feather’s The Encyclopedia of Jazz in the 70s — literally from cover to cover. This was the edition co-edited by Ira Gitler. There’s so much great music to listen to in one lifetime. Life is a journey when it comes to music, and you cherish those special memories forever.

What are some of the biggest changes in the business in general, aside from COVID?

One of the biggest changes is the attrition of the compact disc as we’ve moved toward streaming. At the same time vinyl has come back in stronger numbers than we’ve seen in a long time. It’s really exciting for me to see that audience grow.

As a long-time record collector, it’s a treat for me to get to work with a number of labels that are doing vinyl releases today, including Resonance, Blue Note, Verve/Impulse!, Reel To Real Recordings, Elemental Music and Real Gone Music. It’s a big thrill to have a chance to work with a lot of talented designers to create beautiful artwork for these large format packages. These are the things that knock people out when we see them. I enjoy taking the elements that get me excited as a fan, the things that matter to me, and put them into my work. I think of it as thoughtful curation. It’s really just trying to make each release as great as can be. From finding photographs that people haven’t seen before to commissioning new writing, it’s all about creating an incredible experience for the fans.

In a lot of ways, it’s better doing this kind of work these days with all the resources we have available, but I’m indebted to all the great archival producers that I’ve learned so much from, like Michael Cuscuna of Blue Note/Atlantic/Mosaic Records, Michael Lang, Richard Seidel, John Koenig, Cheryl Pawelski, Hollis King and Joel Dorn. I work in the archival world, and I’m grateful to George Klabin at Resonance for giving me the flexibility and freedom to elevate the art of record making.

How have the challenges of the pandemic affected record labels and what are they doing to stay viable?

It’s no joke. The pandemic really froze a lot of us in our tracks. At Resonance, I felt like it was a “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” kind of moment. I used it as motivation to come up with some new ideas, one of which was implementing a number of streaming playlists to make it easier for people to discover and rediscover some of the great music that Resonance has released over the past ten years in the comfort of their own homes, since nobody can go out and hear live music these days. We had discussed it before internally, but the pandemic made us feel like it was the right time to bring them out.

We created a number of digital-only “Best on Resonance” compilations from living artists such as Eddie Daniels, Marian Petrescu, John Beasley, Andreas Öberg and Polly Gibbons, as well as one called Trip to Brazil: The Best of Brazilian Jazz on Resonance and another called Quiet There: The Best of Ballads on Resonance Records, which feature living artists mixed with archival recordings of jazz legends. People get their music in a lot of different ways these days. We wanted to be proactive in the streaming realm so more people can access and discover all this great music.

Another recent initiative we’ve undertaken is face masks. We just released our first design, which is a classic image of the iconic pianist Bill Evans. We’ve been working with the Bill Evans Estate for the past ten years and are about to release our fifth album of previously unissued Evans music on Resonance. We thought it would be fitting to feature Bill Evans on our first face mask, as he’s in a lot of ways the face of Resonance’s historical recordings. We used a classic Evans shot from the great jazz photographer Tom Copi.  

How has the discography changed throughout the years at Resonance? Has the label embraced new subgenres?

George Klabin started Resonance Records as a vehicle for advancing the careers of younger emerging jazz talent. Indeed, we are a charitable foundation whose main purpose is to advance public awareness of jazz. We started off primarily working with living and developing artists. George produced all of these artists’ recordings and he continues to produce them. These artists are immensely talented, but for the most part, they’re not household names — Tamir Hendelman, Christian Howes, Cathy Rocco and Donald Vega, among others. George believes these artists and others like them deserve wider recognition and so he developed a platform for them to get their music out into the world.

Alongside these newly recorded releases, shortly after I came to Resonance we began to explore releasing historical recordings and I’m happy to say these have really taken off, beginning with our two cornerstone artists, Bill Evans and Wes Montgomery. One of our first Grammy successes was the John Coltrane Offering album, which won a Grammy for best liner notes by Ashley Kahn. Then 2016 was really a watershed year for us, as we released ten historical albums in one year from Bill Evans, Wes Montgomery, Larry Young, Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra, Sarah Vaughan, Stan Getz, Shirley Horn, Dennis Coffey and The Three Sounds featuring Gene Harris. Aside from the Resonance releases, I also produced releases with a number of other labels, which brought my year-end total to a whopping 26 releases that year. That’s also the year I won “Rising Star Producer of the Year” in DownBeat’s Critics Poll.

How do you first hear about a rare tape and what goes into deciding whether to put it out or not?

I’ll hear about a tape from variety of sources — a musician, a club owner, a director of an archive overseas, a family member of an artist; there are many ways I hear of them. I hear from people from all over world just out of the blue all the time. Our label’s profile has risen quite a bit in recent years, so people all over the world hear about us and they come to me. Some people refer to me as “the jazz detective” or the “Indiana Jones of jazz.”

Generally speaking, there’s a mixture of art and commerce involved in deciding what we’re going to release or not. There are times we take on projects because we really believe in the artist and their music so much that we’re willing to put it out, even if it’s somewhat risky commercially. Our status as a charity and George’s philanthropic generosity allows us this flexibility; however, we do budgeting forecasts to see hypothetically what a project might sell, so we can take calculated risks. Making a lot of money is nice, but it has not been the main motivation for our label. It’s humbling to know that there’s this group of people out there who graciously come out to support these productions. It’s not a giant industry, so it’s really heartwarming. Needless to say, I’m happy people are enjoying what we’re doing.

What is the most exciting aspect of your job?

Getting to hear things for the first time from musicians I cherish and appreciate very much is definitely the most exciting part of what I do. Just being one of the very first to hear something. I’m literally on the edge of my seat waiting to hear some of these recordings. I also immensely enjoy working with people from all over world.

Thanks again to George Klabin’s generosity, I get to travel the world and visit people who work in archives, our distributors, the media, music collectors and even knowledgeable people who work in retail. There’s lot of love to go around. My life has become so much richer, and I’ve gained valuable perspectives doing this work. It’s all been a learning experience, thinking about all the things that go into doing a production, and all the various steps between that and people getting their hands and ears on the music.

Your favorite story about a recording – the one that got away or a fluke that brought somebody really good to you?

When I first started working with George, he shared with me a Bill Evans recording that he made back in 1968 in New York City with bassist Eddie Gomez and drummer Marty Morell. George has a fascinating history with music that goes back to the 1960s when, as a teenager, he was head of jazz programming at WKCR FM Radio at Columbia University in New York City, when he was a student at Columbia. George had a Crown 2-track recorder and an Ampex mixing board and he would take them around town to where jazz musicians were performing and record them. His deal was that he’d record them and if they let him play the recordings on his show at WKCR, he’d give them a copy of the tape to promote themselves. These early tapes included the debut performances of the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra at the Village Vanguard in 1966, which we released on Resonance just a couple of years ago. The Bill Evans recordings George made that he played for me first eventually made up our Live at Art D’Lugoff’s Top of the Gate release, one of the earliest of Resonance’s “archival” releases. That was an exciting project for me to work on because George allowed me to handle most of the production. I negotiated with all the rights holders, and in this case, there was a big one, the record label that Bill was under contract to at the time. I had a great relationship with them, so fortunately I was able to negotiate the rights. That was a big thrill for me. The album went on to sell over 30,000 copies in first year.

That was the first of what has now grown five productions that we’ve done with the Bill Evans Estate, including the new one coming out for Record Store Day’s Black Friday event on November 27, 2020 called Live at Ronnie Scott’s with Eddie Gomez and Jack DeJohnette from July of 1968.

Other comments?

People who follow me on Facebook know that I’m a big walker. I’m lucky to live in sunny Los Angeles, so I walk about ten miles a day on average. Last week I actually hit my highest number for a week, which was 100 miles. When I first started working for George at Resonance back in 2008, I had been maintaining a really unhealthy lifestyle. I would just sit at my desk all day. I also ate too much. I ended up putting on a lot of weight and I’m grateful to George for calling me out on that and giving me the motivation and support I needed to make some changes. Especially during this crazy time with the pandemic, keeping a healthy work/life balance is key for me and a big part of that is getting out and being active.

I’m also proud to have four releases coming out for Record Store Day Black Friday on November 27, including the Bill Evans album I mentioned before Live at Ronnie Scott’s, but also Resonance’s first releases with the Saxophone Colossus Sonny Rollins Rollins in Holland: The 1967 Studio and Live Recordings and Monty Alexander Love You Madly: Live at Bubba’s from 1982. There’s also another release from Cory Weeds’ Reel To Real Recordings label in Vancouver, The George Coleman Quintet In Baltimore, which is a previously unissued recording presented by the Left Bank Jazz Society in Baltimore, MD in 1971. These are all available as deluxe vinyl, CD and digital download releases with extensive booklets full of rare photos, newly commissioned essays, interviews and memorabilia.

Lastly, I’m working on two coffee table art books for Jazz Images, which will be a first for me. One is a photography book of the iconic jazz producer Don Schlitten’s work, and the other is of the legendary illustrator/artist David Stone Martin. They are both personal heroes of mine, from which I derive a great deal of inspiration, and I’m thrilled to be paying homage to them with these book projects. I’m also looking forward to sharing info soon about a mammoth release for Blue Note Records next year I’m really excited about as well. There’s a whole bunch more goodies in store for 2021!

For more information, visit resonancerecords.org, cellarlive.com (Reel to Real), facebook.com/zev.feldman, instagram.com/feldman.zev.

Photos courtesy of and with permission of Zev Feldman. Top photo (c) Zak Shelby-Szyszko.

(c) 2020 Debbie Burke

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