Monday, November 11, 2013

Looking Back on the Release of "Free Me for the Joy," 1999

cover of Free Me for the Joy CD by Lisa B aka Lisa BernsteinAs I embark on reviewing all the meticulously saved pieces of paper relating to my adventures in the music business, I'm looking back on the release of my first full-length CD in early 1999, almost 15 years ago: "Free Me for the Joy."

All the songs on it were originals, written by me alone, or with Jim Gardiner or Barbara Higbie (except for "Trane's Ride," which is my arrangement of Coltrane's "Naima" brilliantly rendered by Jim, with my original poem over it). It was produced at Pajama Studios in Oakland.

My precious record original had waited for six months at the offices of Warner Jazz, where it was being considered by former Executive VP of Jazz Matt Pierson and Manager of Jazz A&R Dana Watson. Dana, a nice man, sweetly held many supportive phone conversations with me updating me on their review. It was amazing that they even listened to it: I had gotten it to them by cold-calling them myself. Ah, the bravado and fears of youth (though I was't that young, except I felt it in this venture)! Of course, I was deeply disappointed when they passed, "for no particular reason" except that they could only pick one new artist to add to their roster. I forget whom they choose. In retrospect, it was a hell of a coup to get even that far without any connections or help. 

In 1998/1999, musical artists were just starting to release their own records, and we believed that we could match the promotional efforts of the labels, albeit on a smaller scale, and gain a real listening audience.

I hired a good press agent, David Ginochio, former publicist at Concord Records, and we mailed out a slew of records together from his apartment, which was decorated with hip mid-century furnishings, of course long before "Mad Men" popularized the look. He managed to get some nice reviews for me.

I also got respectable radio play on 87 stations, mainly non-commercial and college stations along with about 10 smooth jazz stations ( I remember painstakingly tracking the radio reports from the promoters I'd hired, noting every incidence and position of charting on the CMJ top 30, jazz, and adult album alternative charts, hoping for some kind of groundswell.

I also sent many fruitless missives to distribution companies, sold it myself by mail order and my then-rare gigs, and got it online on an early CD storefront. The whole venture was a maddening, exciting, massive learning experience. No one really knew what the outcome could be and no other artists shared the results of their previous efforts to release records on their own. Not that many had done it.

Below is a review of "Free Me for the Joy" from Jazziz Magazine by Jonathan Widran. It was a lovely critical response  the press the record garnered also included a number of other good reviews, a feature story that was picked up by the Jewish press, and an online interview on  but like some of the others, the review prompted not only my gratitude and excitement, but a sense of the lack of control over the critical interpretation of my music. I was surprised that he viewed my voice as "a dead ringer for that of Dianne Reeves" (a huge compliment, but come on, not accurate) and frustrated by his statement that "Trane's Ride (Naima)" detailed Coltrane's impact on my "body and soul" when I had clearly introduced the track during the intro as being in the voice of Trane himself. Perhaps Jonathan (who was supportive of all my subsequent records) was thrown by the idea that a woman could voice a man's experience. Still, I was pleased to get a positive multi-paragraph review in a major national print publication.

A couple of the spoken-word-oriented tunes, including "Trane's Ride," had appeared on a 1994 EP in limited release and three appeared later, in remastered versions, on my 2009 "The Poetry of Groove." Yet the overall sound of most of "Free Me for the Joy" is indeed more smooth jazzy and adult contemporary than any of the records of mine that followed — as we had intended. 

While my voice opened up and my technique and interpretive powers deepened in my four subsequent records, the originals of "Free Me" still sound pretty good to my ears. I've progressed enough to forgive myself for the parts I cringe at on my maiden voyage. And I'm proud to have launched this first full-length record in all my stomach-churning hopefulness, naivete, and determination. The musical landscape feels so different now, crammed with countless releases by artists on their own labels, whereas the reviews surrounding mine in Jazziz target records from Concord, RCA Victor, and indie Palmetto. 

You can hear and buy "Free Me for the Joy" at CDBabyiTunes, or Amazon. I'd sure appreciate your enjoyment, reactions of any kind, and support.
Jazziz review by Jonathan Widran of Free Me for the Joy by Lisa B aka Lisa Bernstein

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Thanks for adding your voice!