The Oral History Of AUM Fidelity: Steven Joerg's DIY Avant-Garde Label Celebrates Its 15th Anniversary

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AUM Fidelity
A selection of AUM Fidelity releases.
In an interview with the Voice last year, AUM Fidelity head Steven Joerg made his mantra crystal clear: "Giants walk among us now, and you've got to fucking pay attention." For the last fifteen years, the proprietor and sole employee of the Brooklyn-based jazz and avant-soul label has been documenting those giants, producing and releasing a pioneering cache of singular music while remaining true to his DIY ethos.

Joerg honed his do-it-yourself chops in the early '90s at indie powerhouse Homestead Records. As manager, it was there that he hatched the then-unheard concept of integrating free jazz on a predominantly indie rock label, positioning drummer William Hooker and David S. Ware on the same label where Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr and Big Black recorded seminal records. Ultimately, Joerg left Homestead and—taking inspiration from Charles Mingus' legendary album Ah Um—launched AUM Fidelity in 1996. The following year ('97) saw AUM's inaugural release, David S. Ware Quartet's groundbreaking firestorm Wisdom of Uncertainty, a record that included a jaw-dropping group of purveyors (Ware, Matthew Shipp, William Parker and Susie Ibarra) who subsequently helped shape the New York avant-garde scene and beyond.

Now, the preeminent avant-garde jazz artists Joerg has championed over the years are giving the AUM boss his props. Read on for a slew of glowing, heartfelt testimonials from a few of the giants he's worked with.


Matthew Shipp Trio, live in 2011

Matthew Shipp: I was around at the beginning of AUM. I had met Joerg when he was at Homestead Records and talked him into signing [saxophonist David S.] Ware. It was exciting when he made the transition to working for an indie rock label but signing jazz artists to starting his own "jazz label," which still had the same gritty vibe of indie rock. What made [the David S. Ware Quartet's 2002 album] Freedom Suite so exciting was that it was a Sonny Rollins piece which, when Rollins recorded it, had no piano. So I had freedom to invent a role for myself on this CD, and also because of Ware's close friendship with Rollins. We had his blessing, and in fact, I am told he loved what we did with it and when he was put in the Jazz Hall of Fame at Jazz at Lincoln Center, he requested that the Ware Quartet play a movement from Freedom Suite—which we did. It was surreal playing up at Jazz at Lincoln Center—and I don't mean that in a good way.


William Parker at Local 269, 2009

William Parker: Steven Joerg was open to recording the music that we were making when no one else was interested, without interfering with the style or content. The artists were given complete freedom to do the music they wanted to do. Unlike other labels—I won't mention any names—AUM Fidelity gave out royalty statements and royalties. It is a joy to work with someone you can trust who believes in the artist and music all the way down, from the beginning to the end. As time moves on, the label and its concepts become more and more rare.


Eri Yamamoto at the Vision Festival, 2009

Eri Yamamoto: I first met Steven while playing piano on William Parker's Raining on the Moon. I've since made four CDs for AUM Fidelity as a leader. The most recent is my trio recording, The Next Page. When I work with Steven, it always feels like we're the home team. He loves the music and the musicians, and gives me complete artistic freedom. It is a New York-based label, and if I want to talk with him about an idea, we can meet face-to-face and have a nice drink or two. He is an artist himself, and instinctively understands what I'm thinking when we produce CDs together. Before recording The Next Page, my trio had a gig at Cornelia Street Cafe, and Steven came to listen to the music that we'd be recording. He said, "Great, good to go!" At the studio, he was a great presence in the control room, and had a handle on all aspects of the recording. So I felt free to play the piano and not to worry about anything.

Joe Morris: All of the CDs I've made for AUM Fidelity are different, and each is special to me. They're also all special in terms of how they were made and the process of making them, so it's hard to pick one in particular. But the one that might be the most unusual one is Singularity, my solo acoustic guitar CD. I recorded it myself in my house. I recorded two and a half hours of music, but I didn't like the sound, so I recorded for another two and a half hours. Out of that I selected about forty-five minutes of music for the CD, and it's the best example of the deepest and most unique part of my music. I worked for years to get that right and it is still growing.

The other CD worth mentioning is [the forthcoming] Altitude, which is a trio with William Parker on bass, Gerald Cleaver on drums. I'm playing electric guitar on it. Steven Joerg and I first spoke about making a trio cd with William on bass 15 years ago. We kept talking about it. Finally the time seemed right. AUM had two weeks at the Stone last June, so we arranged the gig and had it recorded. In some ways, it's the completion of a big circle or a couple of circles. My first recording—Wrapround, released in 1983—was a live trio, and my first AUM Fidelity CD, Antenna, was also a trio. Altitude is a long-form collective improvisation. I am extremely influenced by Jimmy Lyons, Albert Ayler, late Coltrane and all the free jazz saxophonists—and that includes [AUM artist] David S. Ware, so having Altitude on AUM Fidelity makes sense.


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