Label Watch: Monarch Records
By Jeff Kaliss
“This has been an incredible year for me,” Dmitri Matheny pronounced at the close of 1995, which found him sitting in a cafe by the dock of the Bay, on San Francisco’s recently renovated Embarcadero. He was just about to walk over to Pier 3 and pick up the keys to the new offices of Monarch Records.
Monarch had not only released Matheny’s first album as leader and flugelhornist, Red Reflections, but had hired him to pilot their business arrangements. And Matheny, on the verge of his 30th birthday, was retaining his job as director of corporate partnerships for the San Francisco Jazz Festival, which he’d helped to hook up with Citibank and to establish a scholarship to his alma mater, the Berklee College of Music.
Matheny had come to Monarch’s founders, Steve and Ted Hall, with a plan for marketing his recent release which had impressed the financial wizard siblings. They’d begun the label with the release of pianist Mark Little’s Dream Walkin’ two years earlier, and were looking to expand as an embarkation point for artists known and unknown.
For his part, Matheny was impressed with how the new label might stay afloat where other small Bay Area startups had been swamped. “Monarch reflects the same values as all those other wonderful small independent jazz labels,” says Matheny, “in that they all recognized that there’s this wealth of talent here on the West Coast, which is under-represented on the East Coast-centric major jazz labels. But the thing that separates Monarch is that the brothers are both very smart business people. They know that the downfall of those other labels was that they were undercapitalized, thinking that they’d be financially strong in a year or two, where it had taken Carl Jefferson 15 years to turn a profit with Concord. You have to build the catalog.”
This Monarch has done with nine releases to date, with a diversity evocative of the Bay Area’s. Aside from Little and Matheny, there have been offerings of Latin-tinged Guamian pianist Patrick Palomo; a post-bop meeting of Sacramento trumpeter Tom Peron and local drummer, DJ, and recording engineer Bud Spangler with their former leader and pianist Jessica Williams; a contemporary album by saxophonist Alex Murzyn; and a recording captured at Yoshi’s Nitespot in Oakland, featuring mainstream master Cedar Walton.
“Monarch has a very organic, live quality,” Matheny believes. “Most of our recordings are recorded either live in concert or live in the studio, so that you’ll always know if you go to hear these musiciansm this is what they’ll sound like. And we’re choosing artists who don’t use a lot of overdubbing and engineers and production people who are very experienced at doing this kind of thing.” Included in the latter group are Orrin Keepnews, Frank Dougherty, Jim Edwards and Spangler.
“And the biggest thing is quality,” Matheny continues. “We’ve noticed that a lot of labels will have one or two knockoffs, but we’re painstaking about hiring excellent designers and artists to work on all our packaging.”
On the homefront, Matheny’s two employers are conferring on the possibility of recording San Francisco Jazz Festival performances for Monarch release. To ensure that the “West Coast sound” is heard on other coasts and in between, the label is helping its artists make the most of their tours and has established a place in cyberspace at <http://www.jazzonln.com/labels/monarch/>. “A lot of independent record labels act like scavengers,” Matheny points out. “They sit and wait for one of the major labels to drop artists and then they go to get them. But one of Monarch’s strategies is to develop careers, and if the level of loyalty the artists feel toward the label continues, it will pay off in spades.”