In the full-fat era of the record industry, Siggi Loch was a very big cheese. Starting out as a teenaged Sidney Bechet fan in Hannover in the early 1950s, he played drums with his own band, the Red Onions, before taking a job as a sales rep with EMI-Electrola in 1960, aged 20. From there he became a label manager at Phonogram in Hamburg, making his first album as a producer with the saxophonist Klaus Doldinger in 1962. He moved on to Liberty/United Artists, where he was installed as managing director of a stable including Can and Amon Duul II, the pioneering German rock bands. In 1971 he joined WEA Hamburg, then the umbrella company for Warner Brothers, Atlantic, Elektra and their associated labels in Germany, becoming chairman of WEA International from 1983-87: an extremely powerful position within an industry then at the peak of its prosperity.
When he left WEA, it was with a plan that involved something more ambitious than staring at his collection of contemporary art. As he told me during a conversation over a cup of coffee in Berlin a few months ago, he wanted to return to jazz, his first love, and to put something back, via his own independent label. Based in Munich, ACT currently releases around two dozen albums a year, having become widely known for its successes with the Swedish trio of the late pianist Esbjörn Svensson and, more recently, the German piano prodigy Michael Wollny.
The obvious comparison is with another Munich-based label identified by three letters: Manfred Eicher’s ECM. But, despite their similarities (including a fondness for giving their artwork a unified look based on the founder’s personal aesthetic), the two diverge in important ways. ACT is less identified with a sound, or a particular way of recording. Loch’s taste — or at least his vision of what his label should present to the public — is looser and more eclectic. He also presents concerts, including the annual Jazz at the Philharmonie, which revives the old Berlin Jazz Festival tradition of staging events at the grand home of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra.
In recent months, while Loch has been celebrating his 75th birthday, ACT has put out two albums that, while unlikely to shift units in EST or Wollny quantities, seem to me to be among the year’s outstanding releases. As it happens, both are by quartets with similar instrumentation: saxophone, guitar, double bass and drums. Curiously — and, I’m sure, coincidentally — the two albums share a preoccupation more usually associated with the other Munich label: a desire to paint sound-pictures of winter landscapes.
Slow Snow is a set of quietly gorgeous tone poems that find the Norwegian saxophonist and composer Tore Brunborg accompanied by three compatriots: the guitarist Eivind Aarset, the bassist Steinar Raknes and the drummer Per Oddvar Johansen. Brunborg’s lovely melodies are enhanced by an almost subliminal but telling use of electronics (contributed by Aarset and Johansen), with the leader doubling to good effect on piano. On a piece like “Tune In” the air of restraint makes Aarset’s guitar distortion all the more telling, his chords creating a mood of suppressed hysteria as Brunborg deploys his fine tone in a solo against a background that rises and falls like a house-trained version of King Crimson’s “Lark’s Tongues in Aspic”. If this is the kind of jazz — calm, spacious, reflective, underplayed, sometimes pastoral in mood, with a muted but glowing lyricism — one has come to expect from Norwegians over the past 40 years, then the sheer brilliance of the writing and playing enables it to escape any charge of predictability with ease.
Winter Light is a more extrovert affair, under the leadership of the gifted American guitarist and composer Scott DuBois, who evokes the example of Claude Monet in his desire to capture shifting light in changing seasons. Completed by the German saxophonist Gebhard Ullmann, the double bassist Thomas Morgan and the drummer Kresten Osgood, the quartet has been together for eight years and its members show every sign of great familiarity with each other’s playing. DuBois’s compositions — with titles like “Late Morning Snow” and “Night Tundra” — are devised to make the most of the musicians’ ability to go from inside to outside with complete naturalness; on the opening “First Light Tundra”, in fact, the gentle textures of the main theme are occasionally and very effectively interrupted by squalls of free playing, most notably from the bass clarinet of the remarkable Ullmann, a veteran who deserves to be better known. My admiration of Morgan is underlined by his unflagging brilliance throughout this set, in partnership with Osgood’s vigorous drumming; together they rise to the challenge set by DuBois’s furiously inventive solo on “Early Morning Forest”.
If these albums certainly make a good accompaniment to the onset of winter in the northern hemisphere, it has to be said that they’d sound good in any season: the other quality that unites them, beneath their frost-bitten tune titles, is an underlying warmth. I can’t recommend them highly enough.
* The photograph of Siggi Loch is by Barbara Elsmann (c) ACT.