Artist-run labels have a long history in jazz. They’re frequently a vehicle for artists to release their own work: Charles Mingus and Max Roach started Debut in the 1960s; Derek Bailey and Evan Parker ran Incus in the 1970s (and Bailey continued it after he and Parker split); and today, players like Dave Holland (Dare2), Jon Irabagon (Irabbagast) and others are also label heads. A few expand and put out records by other musicians as well: Dave Douglas‘s Greenleaf and Branford Marsalis‘s Marsalis Music are doing this, just as Stanley Cowell and Charles Tolliver‘s Strata-East imprint did in the 1970s. Of course, the king of them all is probably John Zorn, whose Tzadik imprint is a small cultural empire unto itself.

Hot Tone Music is a relatively new label, launched by bassist Mimi Jones in 2009 in order to get her first album as a leader, A New Day, to the public. Five years later, she’s broadened Hot Tone’s scope and issued three albums simultaneously—her second release, Balance; saxophonist/flautist Camille Thurman‘s Origins; and percussionist Shirazette Tinnin‘s Humility: Purity of My Soul. While each of these discs is an individual artistic statement, they’re also clearly the product of collective effort—Jones produced or co-produced each record, and plays on both Balance and Humility, while Thurman and Tinnin perform on all three.

Balance (buy it from Amazon MP3) is a long (79 minutes plus), multifaceted CD. Jones wrote or co-wrote six of its 12 tracks, but it also includes versions of Bob Dorough‘s “Nothing Like You,” Adele’s “Someone Like You,” and Roy Ayers’ “Everybody Loves the Sunshine,” plus a reworking of the children’s song “The Incy Wincy Spider.” Most of the music occupies a shimmering zone between post-bop and upscale R&B, but there are some surprises. “Patriot” is an electric mood piece showcasing Sewell’s distorted electric guitar and Perdomo’s keyboards—it has the same abstract, black-post-rock feel as the work of Burnt Sugar.

The band shifts from song to song; in addition to Thurman on flute and voice, and Tinnin on drums and percussion, trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, pianists Luis Perdomo, Enoch Smith Jr. and Miki Hayama, guitarists Marvin Sewell and Sean Harkness, drummer Justin Faulkner and singer Mala Waldron can all be heard. Jones herself sings, too; her voice is subtle but clear, never scatting or phrasing in an overly mannered style. When asked about the diverse personnel, Jones says, “Believe me, Phil, I really tried to bring the core group, I swear I did, but being the great musicians that folks are today it’s actually hard to get them all in one place on the same day. So in the past three years I’ve formed camps of folks that I like to play with that know the music; it’s safer and less stressful. Plus I wanted to try something new…I’d been waiting to finally get Ingrid on my project since we’d done a few dates with Terri Lynn Carrington‘s Mosaic, I’d had the chance to reunite with her, and she said yes. Marvin Sewell was messing around playing his song [“The Spinning Tree”] on piano and I had to have it; I tried to get other pianists to do it but it didn’t sound the same, so Marvin ended up playing it. Enoch, my super soulful brother, arranged the Adele song and again it sounded best when he played it, so there was a lot of unexpected additions, that in the moment made complete sense…and there went the core band theory.”

Shirazette Tinnin‘s Humility: Purity of My Soul (buy it from CDBaby) is more of a straightahead jazz album; there are no pop or even jazz-funk tunes, though it does contain versions of McCoy Tyner‘s “Passion Dance” (on which Thurman and pianist Willerm Delisfort are showcased at length) and Eddie Harris‘s “Freedom Jazz Dance.” Her drumming has a precision and sharp attack that at times brings it close to funk or even metal, though her time always retains the looseness that gives jazz its vitality and humanity. Only two tracks out of nine feature vocals, and one of those, “The Warmest Season,” is sung in Portuguese by Afrikkanitha, a vocalist born in Angola, and the other is mostly scatting (from Thurman). Like Jones, Tinnin changes personnel on virtually every track of her album, though in her case it seems less about serendipity than a focused strategy. In her words, “I had in my mind a certain sound and a certain feel for particular songs. All the musicians including myself have things that they do amazingly well…I put certain pieces together for certain songs because of a sound I was going for. For example, the song ‘The Warmest Season’: I chose to have a Brazilian bassist [Amanda Ruzza] and a vocalist whose background is Portuguese because I wanted purity. In other words, I can play Brazilian rhythms, but I was going for honesty so that it would speak not only to me but also to that audience as well. I was always told that the more sincerity I give a certain feel of music, and respect its roots, the more calls I will get.”

In addition to making music, Tinnin is a health coach and personal trainer. Some jazz fans may be familiar with the theories of Milford Graves, which focus on music therapy (as well as acupunture and herbalism), but her emphasis is on reminding musicians that they’re manual laborers, if not athletes, and should train as such. “My goal has been to share with other musicians the significance of exercise,” she explains. “The importance of having a strong core, great flexibility, and a consistent workout routine that is based off of the muscles you utilize for your instrument, as well as having a well-rounded physique. It makes execution and precision when performing much easier, and will prolong your playing life as long as it is done properly.”

Saxophonist, flautist and singer Camille Thurman is the youngest of the women of Hot Tone; the other two seem to be mentors to her in some respects. But she’s already quite a mature and assured instrumentalist, as evidenced by her performances on Balance and Humility and, most of all, her own debut album, Origins (buy it from Amazon MP3). Some of the players on the disc come from the same pool as the other two Hot Tone releases—pianists Enoch Smith Jr. and Luis Perdomo are present, as is Tinnin—but others are unique to Thurman’s band, like bassist Corcoran Holt, harpist Brandee Younger, and highly regarded drummer Rudy Royston. (Of the latter man, Thurman says, “Rudy is like family to me. I’ve had the pleasure of recording with him and Shamie, his wife, on the album Portraits. They have always been a support system along with [saxophonist] Tia Fuller in encouraging me to compose, to keep exploring beyond my comfort zone and to strive to become stronger and better and not fear taking chances.”)

Thurman wrote every track on Origins save two: Fats Waller‘s “Jitterbug Waltz,” and the Saul Chaplin/Sammy Cahn standard “Please Be Kind.” Her tunes’ titles frequently reference introspection—”A Change of Mind,” “The Dreamweaverer,” “Kindred Minds,” “Pursuit with a Purpose”—and the music has a lush, flowing groove, even when the group comes out swinging hard, as on album opener “Forward Motion.” She switches between tenor and soprano saxophone and flute, and sings in a gentle, even slightly girlish voice that’s a contrast with her muscular tone on the big horn. If you heard her sing first, you might expect her saxophone playing to be warm like Lester Young or Coleman Hawkins, but in fact she’s got a strong, reverby sound reminiscent of Dexter Gordon. With Royston (and, on “Indigo Moments” and “In Due Time,” Tinnin) rocking the kit behind her, she spins out long, but never meandering phrases, assured of what she wants to say and how. And her compositions have a strong melodic sense; they’re songs, rather than demonstrations of the tricks at her command. “Tricky musical ideas are cool,” says Thurman. “I like them, especially the mathematical ones, but their use is like a tool…it’s great to be able to write them, but it’s even better to use them as an effective tool for the right moment in telling that story.

“That’s the job of a musician/vocalist—to be a great storyteller,” she continues. “I’m very fortunate to be able to play and sing, but I really like thinking of them as a vessel that I can choose to speak my voice through at the right time, for the right moment and purpose. They create colors, textures and moods and strokes in telling a story. My purpose is to be a storyteller; to touch people, transcend space, taking them out of their everyday elements of life into a different experience and to make them feel and see using my instruments. So if I feel getting to that core essence of the story is best done using my voice, I’ll use my voice; if it’s the tenor, I’ll use my tenor. At the end of the day, the greatest tenor players were inspired by the human voice and the greatest vocalists were inspired by the greatest instrumentalists—Billie Holiday and Lester Young, Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong.”

It’s easy to be impressed by all three of Hot Tone’s artists, and each album more than deserves to be heard on its own merits, but ultimately it’s Jones’s show. As she puts it, “I started this label because I basically didn’t feel like waiting half a century to get signed by existing labels. I had approached a few and been denied, and realized that I had the resources in my own circle to do it. Shirazette and Camille were my friends; they both reached out to me when they arrived in NYC—Shirazette moved from Chicago and Camille, a native New Yorker, arrived back from Binghamton University with her geology degree—for help on how to do the musician thing. After much conversation, it was decided they’d do a record and I’d help them.” She’s a meticulous and thoughtful producer, giving the music on all three albums a high gloss that allows the average listener, perhaps unaccustomed to the documentary realism common to jazz sessions, to appreciate the carefully constructed melodies and exultant interactions that characterize all of this music. “I love the studio; I would like to build one of my own when I grow up someday, it’s like a church for me, like a special place where the magic happens,” she says. “I have a strong and extremely sensitve ear, I can hear if something is hit-worthy or not, sometimes the darn thing just needs to come down in volume, or the artist is blocked from the necessary emotion that is needed for the phrase to translate to the listener. Stuff like that is fun, coming up with endings or arranging—it’s all a playground. And it should be a memorable experience, I mean, a CD lives forever, so best take the time to get it right.” This attitude extends to the packaging as well—while many self-released CDs come in minimalist jewel cases with un-proofread booklets full of typos and grammatical clams, Hot Tone discs come in slick multi-panel digipaks with professional photos reflecting the artists’ personalities, well-chosen fonts and eye-catching layouts.

Fortunately for artists seeking independence (or having it thrust upon them by indifferent labels), the 21st Century offers more opportunities and avenues than ever to allow music to at least potentially reach audiences. Jones seems to have a pretty good grip on the realities of the marketplace (jazz made up just over two percent of records sold last year), and when asked about the pragmatic realities of label ownership, and the biggest problem she faces, she immediately says, “Money: gaining the funding to really be able to do it on a high level, like a Steeplechase, or Blue Note…My label is also different in that we care about the livelihood of our artists. We see what necessary preparations need to be made for the artist to truly succeed, well after the album is done, and how to keep it alive. With social networks, Kickstarter, etc., these platforms help a whole lot, to get the word out and receive support. We are relatively new, so let’s see what happens next, so far we are still having fun!”

She’s got advice for young musicians seeking to make their way onto the scene, too, saying, “It’s difficult to find opportunities to play, it takes time and a lot of attention…that they dont teach in school. Lots of rejection, lots of red tape, and so we have to learn how to maintain our livelihood, practice and continue doing business and networking. It’s so difficult, but we have to do it. Working as a sideman is not enough—your gig is not guaranteed—networking and doing business is not enough, and staying home practicing is mandatory, but still not enough…learn to juggle it all and you will have a chance.”

—Phil Freeman

Watch Thurman, Jones and Tinnin, plus pianist ArcoIris Sandoval, perform “Pursuit with a Purpose” at the Kennedy Center in March 2013:

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