An interview with the jazz musician Mihai Iordache
photo by Matei Buță
Iordache is first and foremost a jazz music lover. His passion for jazz drove him to become a musician in the 80s, playing saxophone. He gradually started to compose and produce music and in 2009 he founded Fiver House Records alongside his wife, Nina. His current musical project is Iordache, where he plays with Tavi Scurtu on drums, Dan Mitrofan on guitar and Adi Stoenescu on Hammond. Their music is funk-infused free jazz, as the band self describes it. The sound is mostly loud, raw, and dangerous with glimpses of peaceful moments.
His label, Fiver House Records, is the house for some eclectic projects such as the indie band Kumm, his jazz group Iordache, jazz singers Luiza Zan, Ruxandra Zamfir and Ana Cristina Leonte, Sebastian Spanache Trio, just to name some.
Mihai Iordache was kind to offer this extensive interview for which I am very thankful.
| How does it feel to have an independent music label?
It feels great, except for the fact that Romania is not the friendliest place for local business and it’s more sympathetic to multinationals. The label was initially the idea of my bandmates from Kumm, who basically wanted to self-produce our fifth album, Far From Telescopes, and the solution we found, back in 2009, was that I officially add an “activity” to our existing business (a translator’s office). Then I wanted to produce my album One Life Left and releasing it on Fiver House Records seemed the obvious choice. And then I heard Sebastian Spanache Trio in Budapest and talked to them right there about producing their upcoming album, Humanized, a great one in my opinion, as were the following two, A Pasha’s Abstinence and The Furnace (the latest isn’t on Fiver House).
It’s great to be independent, but it’s not easy, as a label, to exclusively release the music you like as a person. Some of it, well, does not sell. And, since we depend on physical sales for most of our output (I, of course, control the digital rights to my own stuff), sometimes we have trouble staying afloat.
Some of the music that I refused could have been more profitable, but I hope, in the long run, being more selective will pay off.
| You have a very honest and sincere approach and philosophy: securing a non-exclusive recording copyright and producing physical copies of the albums for a limited period. Where this approach comes from?
I have to do it this way, because otherwise people wouldn’t want to work with us anymore. Most of the time, the albums we released were already recorded, and production was paid for by the artists, we only provided the covers (sometimes) and went through the legal hassle (which becomes a lot simpler when one gets used to it). So, it’s only normal that artists keep their rights, once they have actually self-produced the albums. They also keep most of the CDs.
A few times, I have also paid 50% or 30% of the production price for somebody else’s album, when I absolutely loved the music and accidentally could also afford to do it. In the future, we hope to be able to produce albums from scratch.
| The visual artist Medicine Madison designed a lot of your label’s album covers, two or your Lps, Ana-Cristina’s Secret Lover, Mircea Tiberian & Toma Dimitriu’s The Pale Dot…..
She also did Suzana Laşcu’s Brains On Fluffy Pillows and Ruxandra Zamfir’s Wild At Heart, as well as my new dandelions-and-leaves extravaganza, Organic Natural (the first electronic jazz album recorded without any instrument, except for a small drum, and without electronics). She’s currently working on the cover for a new album by Luigi Ferrara, a fantastic Italian harmonicist that I recorded this past summer in Bucharest, and one for my upcoming Suita Titan (The Titan Suite), a large ensemble work that was commissioned, last January, by the Artist in Residence program at ARCUB, based on my childhood memories from my working-class neighborhood of Titan, in Bucharest, in the ‘70s. The last one is totally psychedelic, graphically, but I won’t say more.
Medicine Madison has a natural feeling for the music, and a good knowledge of graphics software. She wasn’t trained as a designer, but she graduated the Photography and Video School of the National University of Art. As a designer, she is mostly self taught and she also made the label’s website and my own. I trust her completely.
photo credit to Zeppelin Magazine
| Both as a label owner and a musician, what is your relation with musical formats?
I love vinyl, especially because I grew up with it and I think the big covers are fascinating – and a much better canvas for the cover designer to work on. I have a pretty big collection – more than one meter of them – though it’s much smaller than for some people I know. I also have a ton of CDs and cassettes, from the time when music was hard to come by in Romania, the ‘80s and early ‘90s. The best ones were recorded directly from the LP’s.
Some of the young people still love the physical object but, altogether, the focus has shifted towards streaming, and I think it’s a pity because people are putting their entire music collections in the hands of companies – basically, they don’t own anything anymore, they just pay for the access to music. Unlimited access, convenient as it may be, has this perverse side-effect: it shortens the attention span. People don’t have the patience anymore to listen to something that didn’t have an impact on them from the very start. It’s so easy to press “next” and possibly miss something great because, well, it did not grab you from the first two seconds.
This impacts the music in more than one way: pop producers were, as always, the first to adapt. They now have what they call “the hook” – it’s self-explanatory, really. The voice must come in after no more than a few seconds. There probably won’t be any future Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, or Lark’s Tongues in Aspic – at least, not for the general public, which is kind of sad.
| Things are moving forward and looking good for Fiver House. The two Sebastian Spanache Trio ‘s records you have released are also available in Japan now. Will this mean a much-needed expansion for more of your labels output?
I honestly haven’t got anything to do with the Sebastian Spanache Trio albums selling at Disk Union in Japan. Someone there heard them on the Internet, noticed they were great and ordered them. Of course, it was a nice opportunity for me to boast a little and borrow a little of their glory for the label.
During these years we have shipped records to individual buyers as far as Australia and Brazil. But getting into shops from abroad is another story, and it’s not easy, especially if the artists are not known there.
| Nature has been a constant inspiration for you, your music and releases. Organic Natural is an album that finds you making unconventional sounds using dandelions, maple tree leaves, nut tree twigs, broken nut and so many other diverse natural elements. Can you share with us your inspiration behind this album and your connection with the nature?
We are all very connected with nature, but we tend to forget it. Then, something like Hurricane Irma arrives, and nature comes all over you. Or, on a smaller scale, our own tornado in Timisoara. Of course, I love and respect nature, and I hope more people feel the same way. Or, at least, I hope they start to fear it.
The inspiration behind Organic Natural was a similar recording I have done years ago with my friend, bassist Uţu Pascu, in a parking lot in Germany, waiting for the Kumm van to be repaired.
photo by Medicine Madison (left) and Silviu Filip (right)
| Do you have a certain philosophy or strategy regarding composing?
I don’t have a strategy. Sometimes I have an idea, and I record it on my phone – that’s about all the “chance” element of it all. Then I either work it out on the saxophone, at the piano or the midi controller. I try to keep things open and undefined until late in the process, as late as possible. I avoid definite strategies because they tend to yield similar results.
For the dandelions-and-leaves thing, I did not write anything, but recorded straight into the computer, composing as I went. It was a very liberating experience.
For my jazz band Iordache, I write everything and it tends to be either very thorough-composed – as on Garden Beast and much of One Life Left – or very improvised, as we were at Smida Jazz Fest this summer. I would like to find the balance between these two extremes. (Or maybe eliminate improvisation completely, like this very successful British piano trio whose name I forgot, and just play electro with acoustic instruments)
| Jazz is renowned for its political heavy load throughout history. Or at least the American Jazz is. Do you think Romanian and east European Jazz has a similar legacy and tension?
In the ‘60s, Free Jazz was associated with the Civil Rights Movement in the U.S. For us in Eastern Europe, jazz – and rock, and pop music – were windows into what we perceived as the wonderful Western world. Well, now we are, for better or worse, part of that world. Jazz is now cool and classy, something to take selfies with, between a mindfulness course and a pottery workshop.
| You are performing at Romanian jazz music festivals since the 80s. How have things changed in all those years, for both the public and the festivals?
Incredible as it may seem, those audiences in the eighties were much more critical and well-informed about the music, though the only information we had came from cassettes and smuggled LP’s. Now, it seems to me everybody’s definition of jazz is “something mostly acoustic, with a Latin-ish feel, that kind of grooves.” If Abba would resurface as an all-acoustic band, they would probably play European jazz festivals – because this problem is not strictly Romanian. I don’t know why this happened, but I can guess that, at some point, Europe had an excess of classically-trained musicians, who couldn’t really find work in orchestras and turned to “jazz” because they thought it was easier. Well, it isn’t – to paraphrase Monk.
That being said, I would like to congratulate the few organizers and festival managers who still insist on programming actual jazz bands, and I’m especially talking about foreign bands. But the trend is unstoppable, I think, and in a few years, we’ll have acoustic rock/electronic festivals, still calling themselves jazz festivals.
| Have you got some fond memories from touring outside Romania? Which memories come to surface in an instant?
Very quickly: playing with my own band in Jerusalem - not the badly organized official gig, but a thing I booked myself at Artel Jazz Club, a nice place in Jerusalem's Russian Quarter - and playing with Kumm at a student festival in Istanbul.
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