Earlier this year, a very exciting new venture named Is It Jazz? Records was launched by the gentlemen who are also responsible for running and handling everything in relation to the well-known Norwegian labels Karisma Records and Dark Essence Records. Now, the thing is that jazz is many things to so many people, which is obviously something that the brains behind Is It Jazz? Records are perfectly aware of since its name includes a question mark. The first two outputs, more specifically the self-titled opus by Soft Ffog and Woolgathering by Datadyr, represent quite different takes on the jazz genre – the former being progressive and hard-hitting while the latter is a mixture of highly energetic jazz and Americana. Those of you who are into prog rock and experimental rock seriously ought to pay attention to what this label is dabbling in. We caught up with Martin Kvam for a discussion about all things Is It Jazz? Records.

Greetings Martin, how are we feeling today and what are you currently up to?

M: Hey, I’m doing fine, and right now I’m answering this interview among all the other stuff we’re doing. Like planning the release schedule for next year for our three labels.

Tell me about the actual idea and concept of Is It Jazz? Records and how it came into existence. Was it something that you guys had been discussing and thinking of doing for a while? How many are involved in the endeavor?

M: We had discussed this for a while before we started Is It Jazz? Records. There’s a couple of us here at the office that really enjoy jazz (and some really do not), and we all enjoy experimental music, so we were on and off talking about how great it would be to have a new imprint under Karisma and Dark Essence Records AS. I worked as a booking agent for several years within the Norwegian jazz scene and booked for artists like Nils Petter Molvær, Eivind Aarseth, Kristin Asbjørnsen and many more, so I had contacts and some experience within the jazz genre. Another thing is that I always felt that some progressive rock bands sound more like jazz than some jazz bands do, and I’ve been discussing this with several venues and festivals around Europe. What I felt was a bit weird was that they could book a rock band with jazz musicians but wouldn’t touch a prog rock band with a lot of jazz inspiration. Also, every year, especially in Norway, there’s a discussion around the line-ups for the different jazz festivals about some artists that are outside the genre somehow, and the question often is, “but is it jazz?”. So, when we decided we wanted to set up our own jazz label, I thought about this yearly discussion and took the name from that, and it seems that people enjoy the label name. At least we do. With all of that settled, we started looking for some bands and now we have six signed to us.
Everyone at Karisma and Dark Essence Records works with the three different labels (Karisma, Dark Essence and Is It Jazz? Records) with various things, but with respect to Is It Jazz? Records, it’s mainly me and my colleague Otto Egil who do most.

Jazz is so many things to so many people out there. I think the scope and variety of the genre is displayed quite nicely by your first two releases, i.e. the self-titled offering by Soft Ffog and Woolgathering by Datadyr. The former is akin to a mixture of prog rock and jazz whereas the latter is an explosive and pretty fierce take on the genre. I could easily see fans of aggressive and intense music in general getting a kick out Datadyr, and I think Soft Ffog in particular is something that fans of prog ought to check out. Would you agree?

M: I would agree. Soft Ffog, with members of similar bands such as Krokofant and Red Kite, have very much been welcomed by a lot of prog fans. There are a lot of bands in that style in Norway, like Elephant9, Krokofant, Bushman’s Revenge and Red Kite, that are probably more prog rock than jazz but are played by jazz musicians and focus a lot on improvisation. Datadyr mix more traditional jazz with Americana and have a totally different approach to expanding the sound. And that’s also what I like with all that can be labeled jazz; there are so many different directions, from the hardcore be-bop sound to the mellow soul sound and everything between.

What bands and artists are you currently working with and what can you tell us about your upcoming releases?

M: The next release is the debut from a rising local saxophone star, namely Aksel Røed and his Other Aspects. Do You Dream in Colours? will be out early next year, and this is an eight-piece classic jazz band with inspiration from Ornette Coleman, Pharoah Sanders and those classic names.

Then we have Solstein, which is a new project from the Norwegian prog rock old-timer Jacob Holm-Lupo who is known from the prog band White Willow and more. Here he wanted to explore jazzy harmonies with proggy arrangements and has ended up in a more fusion style. And in the line-up for Solstein, he has engaged drummer Keith Carlock of Steely Dan among other things.

Then we have signed local band Shakai, who will soon enter the studio to record their second album. Shakai have done rather well in Norway and played quite a lot, and they are in a more soul and pop direction of jazz.

The latest signing is an experimental piano and guitar duo from Tromsø called Leagus. They’ve done two records earlier, and their upcoming album is a commissioned piece with the North Norwegian Jazz Ensemble, a ten-member orchestra, so that is quite a grandiose ensemble piece, which sounds amazing.

Is it a radically different experience to promote Is It Jazz? Records releases as opposed to those albums and outputs that are released under the banners of Karisma Records and Dark Essence Records? I guess what I am really asking is whether or not Is It Jazz? Records offers a sense of variety in your work life. I can imagine that the target groups and the media outlets that you reach out to are perhaps slightly different.

M: No, not really. I just need to address other niche- and genre-specific magazines, radio stations and webzines, just like we do with prog rock at Karisma Records and metal at Dark Essence Records. But it’s an even more vibrant “live” market though, so the bands are therefore more willing (and more eager) to go out and play. However, the mechanics behind doing the marketing is quite similar. I just have to get in touch with even more people ha-ha.

What is your own personal favorite jazz LP of all time . . . and given that many of our readers are awesome metal heads, I should probably ask what a few of your all-time metal favorites are too?

M: That is a hard one! The classic albums from Miles David and John Coltrane are hard not to like. I have a real soft spot for the Köln Concert by Keith Jarret. There are so many of the Norwegian players that are great too – from the older ones like Terje Rypdal, Jan Garbarek and Radka Toneff to Nils Petter Molvær and Eivind Aarset. So, I can’t pick one here. I really can’t pick one metal favourite either, but just to list a few, let’s go with Slayer’s Reign in Blood, Iron Maiden’s Piece of Mind, Godflesh’s Streetcleaner, Bathory’s Under the Sign of the Black Mark, Voivod’s Dimension Hatross and Mayhem’s De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas. The list goes on . . .

What do you guys listen to collectively at the Dark Essence/Karisma/Is It Jazz? Records office and headquarters these days? And which one of you is the bossiest? Is it Bjørnar (Vulture Industries, Black Hole Generator)? You can tell me; it will be our little secret ha-ha 😊

M: Ha-ha, well, we mostly listen to test pressings of upcoming albums or new masters that we receive. Yeah, that and demos that come in from bands that want to be signed. So, the answer here is quite boring, really. It’s usually Otto who controls the stereo, and he plays a lot of random stuff at times. Different playlists, Prince, funk, darkwave synth and alternative pop. Bjørnar usually wants it quiet, since he is crunching the numbers and needs to concentrate. Which is hard since we’re talking all the time anyway.

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