Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



A record label formed in 1967 in Chicago. Its small output of very high quality consists of recordings which deserved to be issued and to stay in print; the packaging and technology have been first-class, nearly all recordings produced with economy and skill by Chuck Nessa (b 20 May 1944, Story City, Iowa). He went to work managing the Jazz Record Mart in Chicago for Robert Koester on condition that he could learn how records were made, and produced some sessions for Delmark in 1966 by AACM members (e.g. Roscoe Mitchell's Sound, Joseph Jarman's Song For, Muhal Richard Abrams' Levels And Degrees Of Light), then started his own label; 24 LPs through 1984 included sets by the earliest incarnation of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Air, Hal Russell's NRG Ensemble; tenormen Von Freeman, Warne Marsh, Eddie Johnson and Fred Anderson; trumpeter Leo Smith, and choice Roscoe Mitchell items (two two-LP sets). Bought in from outside were sets by Ben Webster and Lucky Thompson (from Ensayo) and two sets by the Art Ensemble (from Pathe Marconi). Purchased outright were two discs of Bobby Bradford with John Stevens (produced by Alan Bates), and Charles Tyler's Saga Of The Outlaws, produced by Michael Cuscuna.

Nessa also produced the marvellous eponymous Ira Sullivan album '77 on Flying Fish (on a Nessa CD in 2014). Some Nessa product was issued on Chief CDs in Europe (Russell, Smith, Mitchell, Freeman) but his own label (like all small labels) suffered from Reagonomics: the phony boom in the US dollar saw overseas sales disappear in the mid-'80s at exactly the time CD reissues needed to be made. He began issuing his own first CDs in 1993 with one of the most valuable compilations in black music: a limited edition five-CD set of The Art Ensemble 1967/68, comprising the classic albums Congliptious, Numbers 1&2 and Quartet/Old, plus previously unpublished material. Reissues by Air and Fred Anderson came out '96; a deal was made with Bomba in Japan for at least nine items; Mitchell's delightful Snurdy McGurdy and her Dancin' Shoes reappeared in 2003, and Warne Marsh's valuable All Music in 2004, with additional material intelligently programmed so you can hear the quartet developing a tune.

Nessa also worked with Dr Robert E. Sunenblick at Uptown Records; among the extremely valuable Uptown releases he worked on are In The Land Of Oo-Blah-Dee 1947-1953 by tenor saxist Allen Eager and Charles 'Baron' Mingus, West Coast, 1945-49, compiling all of Mingus's 78s, most of them extremely rare, with a 96-page booklet about West Coast jazz in the 1940s which would alone be worth the price of the set.

All of the Nessa material is appearing on CD; the two sets by Russell's NRG Ensemble both have previously unreleased tracks on CD which are not just fillers but astonishing delights. In 2009, the Bradford/Stevens and the Charles Tyler sets appeared on CD, and also that year a wonderful surprise: the first new Nessa item in much too long. He acquired the rights to the Jazzfest Berlin 2002 set by Von Freeman and his New Apartment Lounge Quartet; Vonsky Speaks saw the master in splendid form, and a recording of very high quality. Then in 2011 came 6 Duos (Wesleyan) 2006, a set of endlessly wonderful conversations by Anthony Braxton on reeds and John McDonough on trumpet, followed in 2014 by Silver Cornet, by the Bobby Bradford and Frode Gjerstad quartet, with Ingebrigt Håker Flaten and Frank Rosaly on bass and drums; and in 2015 by Celebrating Fred Anderson, recorded live with MItchell, Tomeka Reid on cello, Junius Paul and Vincent Davis on bass and drums.

Each Nessa release is a treat for fans of contemporary music. 2017 saw the 50th birthday of Nessa records, and that year saw the release of Four Ways, Roscoe Mitchell with the trio Yuganaut: Stephen Rush, Tom Abbs and Geoff Mann honor the spirit of the Art Ensemble by playing about 50 instruments among them. Also that year came Signaling, a duo set of Reid's cello and Nick Mazzarella's alto sax, the beautiful cover illustration and booklet note by John Corbett making a comparison with Fairfield Porter's expressionism: instead of slashing and splashing, 'two of the leading lights of the Chicago creative music scene' make music 'without feeling the need to push toward more, more, more.' 

And in 2018, the first year of the next 50 years of Nessa Records, Roscoe Mitchell and the Montreal-Toronto Art Orchestra released Ride The Wind, perhaps the most significant Nessa release to date. Mitchell (and Braxton) have been taking the ethos of the AACM to a new level: the idea was always to bring your own music to the collective; now composition, orchestration and improvisation have become equal parts. Mitchell had made two CDs of free Conversations for trio, with Craig Taborn on keyboards and percussionist Kikanju Baku, on the Wide Hive label. He had also been playing compositions with symphony orchestras led by Ilan Volkov in England and in Iceland. Now some of his best students were invited to transcribe and/or orchestrate several of the conversations. (Some of this work by Daniel Steffey and Chistopher Luna-Mega had already been played in Iceland.) All this was following on from everything in the history of improvised music: as Stuart Broomer's excellent notes point out, King Oliver's 'Dippermouth Blues' became Don Redman's arrangement 'Sugarfoot Stomp' for Fletcher Henderson; Hall Overton had arranged Thelonious Monk's piano solo 'Little Rootie Tootie' for a concert in 1959, and throughout the decades the masters have provided younger talents with opportunities. So now Ride The Wind has five of what are now Mitchell's 'Conversations for Orchestra' played by various combinations of up to 20 young musicians, plus a quartet arrangement of 'Nonaah', which began as a solo piece, and which Mitchell has been playing for at over 40 years.

Nessa's well-designed Facebook page is here; it will keep a lot of hard-core music fans up to date on their favorite small label. Interviews with the man himself reveal how a farm boy from Iowa became one of the most highly regarded producers in the business.