Okka Disk Records
In Top Five, we dig into the back catalog of one of city’s many independent record labels and get the back-stories on five of the label’s more significant releases. In our second installment, we focus on free jazz label Okka Disk Records, and talk to label head Bruno Johnson.
The label: Started in 1994 by pushing its roots into the Chicago free jazz scene, Okka Disk Records has since become known worldwide as one of the best places to go for modern American free jazz. By championing musicians such as Peter Brotzmann and Ken Vandermark, Okka Disk has carved out an admittedly small but very important corner in the world of jazz, and music as a whole.
The label head: While Okka Disk began in Chicago, label head Bruno Johnson currently calls Milwaukee his home, where he runs both the Sugar Maple and Palm Tavern in Bay View. Both bars have hosted a number of different musicians over the past few years, including the annual Okka Fest, a three-day free jazz fest that heavily pulls from the Okka Disk roster.
Fred Anderson/Steve McCall, Vintage Duets
Bruno Johnson: I saw Fred play a show opening for Ken Vandermark’s group at the time, and I talked to him and said, “I’m looking to start a label if you’ve got anything you want to do or record.” He called me at eight o’clock the next morning. The material was already recorded for a German label that went out of business, and it was never put out. It was recorded in 1980, so it was 13 or 14 years old at that point. I had a rock label early in the late ’80s and early ’90s. I just wasn’t that interested in rock music as I was in jazz, so I kind of put the rock label to bed.
I’m still happy with it. The music is impeccable. Fred Anderson, he should have been playing the world over every year, instead of going to Europe once every 10 years. Steve McCall is a brilliant drummer. If anything, I would change the things that I did. That’s the great thing about jazz, especially this era. I think people still really haven’t discovered it. It’s never going to be The Police, but there should be more people listening to it. I mean, I love Charlie Parker and Duke Ellington, and those records are incredible, but that was of its time. Although now I think that era is slipping away, too. Anderson died at 87 and Coltrane has been dead forever. So now I’m in this whole new world of Ken Vandermarks who are bringing this next generation of music up.
Peter Brötzmann/Hamid Drake, The Dried Rat-Dog
BJ: It was my first time working with Peter. Really great guy. I have done tons of records with him, but it’s the one most people think about with this label. When I first started the label, there was a handful of people I really wanted to do something with, and he was right up there with Cecil Taylor and Bill Dixon—you know, four or five people who, if I could do a record with, that would be fucking incredible. I think Brötzmann is a singular voice. He’s like Ornette Coleman or John Coltrane. You hear him and you immediately know it’s him. The ferocity is just phenomenal, and that’s what people really harp on, but he’s such a beautifully lyrical player, too.
Mats Gustafsson/Barry Guy/Paul Lovens, Mouth Eating Trees And Related Activities
BJ: The four guys I have been most associated with are Peter, Ken [Vandermark], Fred, and Mats. Even though I haven’t done as much with Mats as I have with the other three, this was a really great record. It’s beautiful, and Mats is a really incredible player—sometimes a little too heavy-handed—but he really knows what he’s doing, and that was such a top-flight band. Dealing with Peter was great because he’s Peter, but to get connected to a lot of these Europeans who are of that branch of music as opposed to Americans was fantastically fun for me. I still think it’s one of the most beautiful records we did. Those cows in the forest thing, or whatever it was.
The Chicago Octet/Tentet, s/t
BJ: The first record I did with them. The music was incredible and it was one of the few things I actually helped with, because John Corbett and Brötzmann and Vandermark set up the concept of the octet, which was all Chicagoans, hence the name. Then we thought of ways to expand the band, so I brought in Joe McPhee and Mats to give it a bit of a different feel. Without many changes, that group still works, and it shows that this music is beyond just duos and trios squawking and squealing. You can actually have a large group that has a cohesive idea, and the music has a direction and flow. There was the Globe Unity Orchestra, and things like that, but I always saw those bands as scream fests, where this was a little more controlled.
BJ: This was Ken’s group that he had for a while with Nate McBride on bass and Paul Nillsen-Love on drums. Ken’s moving into this whole aspect of music where he takes tunes and—by cueing on stage—musicians can go from one tune to another, sort of collaging them together. He’s doing a lot more with the groups he’s recording with now, but I think he really started doing this with FME, and I think that Cuts record is quirky enough that you hear something is going on that’s not just a band playing tunes.