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Jun 19, 2009

How the path from cheap baroque to African drums to avant-garde led to jazz, Wilco and Björk.

By John McAlley

Once upon a time it was unlikely to find a Nonesuch album on the Village Voice’s annual Pazz & Jop list. That archly named poll of the country’s most discriminating (read: broke) rock critics to determine each year’s best records always reeked of hipsterism. But Nonesuch’s utter lack of jazz and pop artists kept them pretty much out of it.
Like barbarians at the gate, two brilliantly raucous mid-’80s avant-jazz albums released on the label—John Zorn’s The Big Gundown and the World Saxophone Quartet’s Plays Duke Ellington—permanently redefined Nonesuch’s stuffy reputation of classicism and anthropological folkiness. Those corrosively musical tour-de-forces made way for even more “noise” makers: the multi-instrumentalist Don Byron, composer/keyboardist Wayne Horvitz and label mainstay Bill Frisell, a jazz guitarist whose crazily eclectic string of albums epitomizes the atmosphere of creative freedom at Nonesuch.
“We want to work with great artists; it’s that simple,” says David Bither. “It’s not about one record. It’s about the artist’s potential over 15, 20, 25 years.”
A couple of cherished lifers—the young jazz masters Pat Metheny, Brad Mehldau and Joshua Redman—were practically dropped into Nonesuch’s lap with the dissolution, in 2004, of the Warner Jazz label. Their addition to the roster has rounded Nonesuch into a rangy and credible house of jazz.
Interestingly, the label’s slow crawl into pop and rock began with a short-lived offshoot called American Explorer. With the legacy of the globetrotting Explorer Series in mind, Bither thought, “What about the music of this country?”
His first signing was Jimmie Dale Gilmore, a great, but, at the time, unheralded singer/songwriter from Texas. His debut album for Nonesuch, 1991’s exquisite slice of Americana After A While, rocketed to number 13 on that year’s Pazz & Jop list.
The label’s push into pop began in earnest, though, in 2000. By that point Bither had become a full-time staffer at Nonesuch, and his natural gravitation to mainstream music—and persuasive argument to his boss Bob Hurwitz to “open up another wing” of the label—created the opportunity for a change.
And then his phone rang. It was a manager Bither knew, asking if Nonesuch would be interested in signing the remarkable country singer Emmylou Harris. “Now, at first blush,” Bither says, “my response was, of course. Anyone in their right mind would be interested in Emmylou Harris. But I was curious about how she’d fit in at a place like Nonesuch. I wondered whether [her presence on the label] would be confusing to the worlds we deal with: media, retail, whatever.”

The New Sound

“I quickly found out [that signing Harris] wasn’t confusing at all,” Bither continues. “It was accepted as a natural extension of the dedication the label had shown to great artists. Emmy had just come off of making a great record called Wrecking Ball, which was a real departure, artistically, for her…She was not resting on her laurels, and that felt right to us. So we signed Emmy, and that opened a door to a lot of different kinds of projects.”
Almost rhythmically, those “projects” included the signing of a staggering array of talent: Joni Mitchell in 2002, Randy Newman in 2003, k.d. lang in 2004, Shawn Colvin in 2006. Seemingly overnight, Nonesuch had become a home to some of the greatest singer/songwriters and pop purveyors in music history.
But the signing that truly altered the DNA of the label came two years after the arrival of Harris. “I got a call from a manager named Tony Margherita,” remembers Bither, “telling me that the band he represented, Wilco, was leaving its label. He had heard from a number of people, including Emmylou’s manager, that maybe we should talk.”
The extraordinary success of that peerlessly cool band’s 2002 masterpiece, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (its first album for Nonesuch), became a lure to other alt-minded acts in search of a supportive record company. Today, the label that got its start peddling low-budget Brahms LPs to student nerds is now feeding the indie-pop manna of The Magnetic Fields—and the dreamy pop of new acts like The Low Anthem and Christina Courtin—to the MP3 generation.
It gets weirder. Björk, Iceland’s glorious wizard of odd, will release her first Nonesuch record in June. Bob Hurwitz admires the complexity of her music, of course, but is equally drawn to “one of the great voices in the world.”
All of this growth leaves Bither, a life-long music fan watching his industry go through desperate times, chastened. “The roster has become more wide-ranging,” he says, “but our mission [to make great music] remains the same. We exist in a challenging climate, yet 40 years of Nonesuch history later, we have the privilege to work with these incredible artists. It’s more than I could ever have dreamed.”

Allen Toussaint

Since embarking on his musical career in the mid-‘50s, pianist, singer, composer, producer and all-around living-legend Allen Toussaint has helped shape the sound of today’s R&B, funk and soul with his Southern charisma and easy-going style.
For his Nonesuch solo debut, The Bright Mississippi, Toussaint looks to the past, reinterpreting the sounds of jazz forefathers like Jelly Roll Morten and Louis Armstrong, alongside the rhythms of his native New Orleans.

Never the Same Band Twice

The one thing to expect from alt-country rockers Wilco is constant change.
Since rising from the ashes of alt-rock legends Uncle Tupelo in the mid-’90s, Wilco has been a band defined by change. After their first two albums solidified them as leaders of the burgeoning alt-country sound, each new release from lead singer/songwriter Jeff Tweedy and company has found them exploring new sonic territories, from the psych-pop orchestration of Summerteeth to the ’70s folk rock of Sky Blue Sky.
Like their music, membership in the band has been constantly morphing, with 14 different musicians moving through the lineup. (The current iteration consists of founding members Tweedy and bassist John Stirratt along with guitarist Nels Cline, drummer Glenn Kotche and multi-instrumentalists Pat Sansone and Mikael Jorgensen.)
That kind of evolution can be life threatening, and has been. In 2001, the sonic experimentation that drove their fourth album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, led to a split with label Reprise, which considered the record—now widely regarded as one of the band’s finest—too difficult to release.
Nonesuch saw its chance and grabbed it. They were rewarded when Foxtrot sold 600,000 copies, making it Wilco’s biggest commercial success to date.
Seven years and four albums later, the relationship continues to flourish.
“Wilco is probably our most successful artist on an ongoing basis at this point in terms of sales,” explains Nonesuch’s David Bither. “When they finally decided to come to Nonesuch, they were asked why. Jeff Tweedy was quoted as saying, ‘Well, they sent us the best box of records.’ It seemed like a flippant answer, but I think it was true. I think when he heard the music, he got a sense of the kind of work we do and that made him feel comfortable that this was an environment where he would be able to do what he wanted to do.”

Golden Girl

When Nonesuch signed Emmylou Harris in 2000, it was the label’s first real effort to push into popular music. Nonesuch added a new chapter to the singer-songwriter’s legendary career, as her Nonesuch debut, Red Dirt Girl, became her most successful record in 20 years.

To Boldly Go…

Whether by song, dance, costume, or set design, Björk shows the music industry how versatile the “pop” genre can be.
Sitting in pews in a small church on the eastern edge of Reykjavík, a crowd of 300 waits for Björk, Iceland’s national hero and the queen of experimental pop. It is the last show of a 17-month tour that began in front of a sellout crowd of over 180,000 at the Coachella Music Festival in California.
Known for her progressive approach to just about everything, Björk has come a long way from her origins in the late-’80s punk rock scene in Reykjavík. Working with a diverse collection of musicians and producers, she continually takes her work in unexpected directions, to sometimes mixed acclaim.
But acclaim seems to be an afterthought for Björk, whose most unconventional musical experiments range from the tonal wanderings of her score to Matthew Barney’s Drawing Restraint 9 to the otherworldly throat singing of the Inuit vocalists she worked with on 2004’s Medúlla.
David Bither of Nonesuch, which released the brand-new Voltaïc CD/DVD boxed set, places great trust in Björk’s unique approach to things. “She is a great example of an artist who has followed her own muse in every respect,” he says, “from the design of her fashion to the design of her videos, but most significantly, to the design of her music.”

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