Jazz in Synergy

In the first year of its existence, Denver-based Synergy Music has issued nine albums--an impressive number by any standard. But Michael Fitts, who's both the president of Synergy and the CEO of Indiego Promotions, isn't satisfied; he wants to double that total in 1998. "I think it's important, with a jazz label, to put out an album a year for each artist--because people want to see them progress and be in touch with what they are doing," he stresses. "Like, to me, John Coltrane wouldn't be such a hit if he'd only done two albums. You need to hear the artists in all different areas."

Fitts's ambitions are commendable, but the question remains: Can he deliver? He has a noteworthy track record, including a past association with the now-defunct Jazz Works and a current affiliation with Vartan Jazz. Moreover, several of his initial releases--including the Russian Dragon Band's When Kentucky Was Indiana, Synergy's debut--have been stellar. But quality doesn't guarantee a smooth ride. Just ask Tom Burns, owner and operator of Colorado's Capri Records. His enterprise has a handful of excellent discs to its credit, but several of them sat in the can for years before he could afford to bring them to fruition.

Such tales of woe haven't scared off Fitts. In fact, the 31-year-old mini-mogul cites Burns as one of his primary inspirations. He knows that indie jazz isn't the easiest way in the world to make a living and that many entrepreneurs toiling in the field consider themselves lucky when they break even. But his passion for the music is too strong to ignore.

A native of Ithaca, New York, Fitts came to Colorado ten years ago to study guitar and music engineering at the University of Colorado at Denver. But after a year as a student, his plans changed. "I decided that I wanted to work rather than go to school--to just figure it all out that way," he divulges. "So when I heard that the Jazz Works was opening, I made sure I got a job, because I wanted to meet everybody in jazz. And I took it seriously. When you do that six nights a week for three years, you get very good at it."

While working at Jazz Works, Fitts met Burns and a friendship was born. Burns subsequently hired Fitts--and when Fitts decided to form Indiego Promotions, Capri became his first client. In the five years since then, Indiego has become a full-service agency: Production, distribution, booking, publicity, and radio, retail and Internet marketing are all handled by the firm. Fitts says the operation is based on "the concept of synergy--that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts." Eighteen months ago, when Fitts expanded into the record-label business, he was struck again by the synergy theme and named the imprint accordingly.

Unlike many record-company presidents, Fitts has hands-on production experience; he's been at the soundboard for over thirty live recordings made at Vartan Jazz. The observations he made under such circumstances convinced him that there was a need for both Indiego and Synergy. "I saw that independent artists didn't have the time or didn't know how to do everything to get their products out there in the world," he says. "So I essentially created Indiego Promotions to be a record label for hire. We can be the office for them and get anything done that encompasses the music business--and I think we're really unique. There are a lot of promoters who do retail or radio or something like that, but we're one of the only ones that I know of in the country that put it all together. We have three people doing radio, one doing retail, three booking people and myself--and now we have someone coming on to do publicity. So it's a unique situation. We can give a band that is really trying to do something what they need right away, whether they've just walked into the studio or if they're trying to get their records into Tower. I've been doing this long enough that I know the people who know how to get the job done.

"At Synergy Music, we want to record artists from groups that have played together for a while," he declares. "We're not into session recording. I don't want to pay Herbie Hancock to show up and play with Mark Simon and Paul Romaine just because I want Herbie Hancock on an album, you know what I mean? Because I think there's a level of musicianship that comes when people play together for a while. I think that has been lost in a lot of session recordings. They're not together."

This principle is at the core of As One, a new CD by Convergence that's being celebrated at Vartan Jazz this weekend. The group may be split geographically (bassist Simon, drummer Romaine and keyboardist Eric Gunnison live in Colorado, while trumpeter Greg Gisbert and saxophonist John Gunther call New York home), but its sound is very much of a piece. "The reason that we called the album As One is that everyone I played it for said they sounded like one instrument," Fitts explains. "There's no ego. There's nobody out front. They're all out front."

Convergence, which is also scheduled to perform live on KUVO-FM/89.3 at 8 p.m. on Thursday, March 19, is among Synergy's strongest assets, and As One joins a growing library of first-rate offerings. Particularly estimable are Speak Low, by the Paul Warburton Quartet; Right Where I Wanna Be, by vocalist Mary Ann Moore; Trios Time, by guitarist Dave Corbus; World Without Cars, by Art Lande and Mark Miller; and Brooklyn Ritual, by John McNeil and Kenny Berger, the first Synergy artists without a Colorado connection (they're from New York). Other discs, like vocalist Aubrey Carton's The Pleasure Dance, are far less gratifying. Carton appears to be a creative composer, and she's backed by a superb group of musicians, including Lande, her significant other. But her singing is so inappropriate to the setting that the album is, to put it mildly, no pleasure at all. Such are the disadvantages of being a record company for hire.

Naturally, Fitts supports all of Synergy's efforts. "The reason we're putting out the music that we are is because we listen to it and it moved us in some way. People are going to find something that they can listen to again and again. It's not going to be something they'll listen to once and put away. It's something that they will grow with.

"As far as the type of music goes, the label sort of has two little branches," he elaborates. "One is the more eclectic, adventurous, avant or interesting side of jazz, and the other would be the more straightahead. Like, Mary Ann, Dave Corbus, Warburton, Convergence and Brooklyn Ritual are more over on the right-hand side, and the Dragon Band, Aubrey Carton and Art Lande/Mark Miller are more over on the left-hand side. The left-hand side is moving more toward the ECM kind of world, and the right-hand side is more toward, say, Blue Note, or any other major jazz label."

If Synergy is to survive, it will take every last ounce of energy Fitts has to spare. Fortunately, he has a lot of it: When he's not working sixteen-hour days, he's appearing with the Denver Gamelon Orchestra, a conglomeration whose musical director, jazz drummer Jill Fredericksen, has lived with Fitts for eight years. And as if that's not enough, he's already fantasizing about a new project. "The last thing that I want to do is to be able to get a venue going somewhere in town--one that is accessible to everyone and that would have all kinds of music," he says, adding, "That's what I want. And I think I could do it."

Convergence album release party. 8:30 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, March 20 and 21, Vartan Jazz, 1800 Glenarm, $8, 399-1111.

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