LONDON - Since 1975, the Milan-based Black Saint and Soul Note labels have ranked amongst Europe's most influential recording names, developing a global reputation for excellence over the intervening two decades - Europe's answer to Blue Note.
Indeed, these recording institutions have collectively ploughed a distinguished furrow through the fertile musical soils of jazz and improvised music.
With a staggering catalogue of close to 500 titles, the pair of labels have been boldly managed by Giovanni Bonandrini (who took over Black Saint in 1977 from Giacomo Pellicciotti) and his son Flavio.
Launching the re-configured Black Saint with under-rated saxophonist Billy Harper's recording of the same name, Giovanni has long embraced jazz with evangelical fervour. Turning a genuine aficionado's love for jazz into a lucrative business proposition, the Bonandrinis follow in the fine tradition of Alfred Lyons and Frank Wolff (Blue Note), Manfred Eicher (ECM) and the Turkish Ertugun brothers (Atlantic Records).
Giovanni became a jazz fan in the mid 1940's after being smitten by the sounds of Dizzy Gillespie 78's he had collected. A trained educator, he doubled as a school teacher while laying the foundations for his recording business. He started the Soul Note label in 1979, which has been associated with such distinguished artists as Steve Lacy, Cedar Walton, Sam Rivers, and Anthony Braxton, among countless others recorded on this ground-breaking label.
With its emphasis on strikingly original and harmonically frontiering American improvisers, other Black Saint notables recorded under Giovanni Bonandrini's astute direction were baritone saxophonist Hamiett Bluiett, AACM pianist, Muhal Richard Abrams, altoist Julius Hemphill, and trombonist George Lewis.
The Bonandrinis have also been a major production force behind the astonishing home-grown talents of Gianluigi Trovesi, Guido Mansunardi, and Pietro Condorelli together with the Far Eastern, jazz influenced tendencies of Chinese Americans Jon Jang and Fred Ho.
Historical context, though, is pertinent in assessing the impact of these Italian labels. Given the allergic reaction of the major labels and Americans towards straight-ahead jazz and improvised music (the pride of 'young lions' were still cubs in elementary school!) during the 70's, the efforts of Giovanni Bonandrini were akin to the role of a respirator in an intensive care unit.
It is fascinating to learn that when controversial documentaries like Ken Burn's 'Jazz' (with its telling moments of historical amnesia) attach epochal significance to Dexter Gordon's 1976 return to America (as a turning point in the fortunes of the music), labels such as Black Saint/Soul Note and ECM were out there doing yeoman work with artists like David Murray and Keith Jarrett, for example, during the mid 70's. Notable too, is the Max Roach/Anthony Braxton album 'Birth and Rebirth' of 1978. Thanks to the tireless efforts of its European fans, the flag for jazz was hoisted up high during a period when the naysayers would have us believe that it was dead.
Having recently acquired the DDQ label, the Bonandrinis are furthering the virtuosic careers of many Italian jazz musicians.
It is significant that the Black Saint/Soul Note titles are still in print at a time when most major labels have the majority of their labels out of print. Roughly forty five percent of their business (recording sales) is in Europe, forty percent in the USA, while 15 per cent is done in Asia.
For more information on Black Saint/Soul Note, DDQ, and its affiliated labels, please visit their website.