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Happy 50th to Nonesuch

February 27, 2014

This month Nonesuch Records celebrated 50 years. Impressive for a small label, especially in light of the current decline of the recording industry.

The label, which was initially a subsidiary of Elektra, was my entry point for many favourite acts, especially Bill Frisell, John Zorn and the Kronos Quartet. The first two had recorded on another Elektra subsidiary called Musician, and I’d assumed Nonesuch was borne from this other label approximately twenty years ago. I’d had no idea it had been around a lot longer.

nonesuch-50-338x300The label actually started in 1964 when founder Jac Holzman decided to produce classical records that could be sold for about half the price of a normal LP; apparently, he was using along the paperback book as his model. In the decades since, Nonesuch has grown and evolved, especially after Bob Holzman came over from the jazz and new music label, ECM, on its 30th anniversary 1984 to run things. (On the record’s website, Holzman has chronicled his thirty years, as well as the work of his predecessors, most notably Tracey Sterne.)

Maybe my first inkling that the label had been around for some time was when I stumbled across the Nonesuch Explorer Series. These recordings, which began in the late 1960s, gave listeners the chance to hear what’s now sometimes called “world music,” often controversially. I first came across these cassettes, which could be procured very cheaply, covering music from all corners of the globe, when I worked in a music warehouse. One of the titles was of Balinese gamelan music, paired with another piece called, “The Monkey Chant,” that was heavy on percussion and theatrical, almost percussive vocal chanting. (I’m pretty sure a sample of it ended up in the mix on Mercury Rev’s debut.)

Long before Paul Simon or Peter Gabriel or David Byrne, the Explorer Series delved into music from other cultures, and apparently several of the recordings were included on a special record sent on the Voyager spacecraft in 1977.

More recently, Nonesuch has released albums by top contemporary composers like Steve Reich, Philip Glass and John Adams. The bulk of Bill Frisell’s solo recordings have been on Nonesuch (he’s since jumped to Savoy), and many other top jazz artists like the World Saxophone Quartet, Brad Mehldau, Josh Redman and Fred Hersch have cut records for it.

The label has also moved into the realm of rock and popular music, signing such acts as Wilco, the Black Keys, Ry Cooder, David Byrne, k.d. lang, Randy Newman and Joni Mitchell. And it’s continued to release the music of artists from around the world like Amadou and Mariam, the Bulgarian State Television female choir, Buena Vista Social Club and Caetano Veloso.

FYI: Off the top of my head, if I had to pick my top five Nonesuch records, they would be in no particular order: Bill Frisell’s Have a Little Faith, Steve Reich’s Different Trains, Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, John Zorn’s Naked City, and Buena Vista Social Club.


From → Essays, Recordings

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