Like the old joke “How do you get a million dollars with a jazz club? Start with two million,” running an independent jazz record label is not for those without deep pockets or afraid of high risk. But Neal Weiss, founder of Whaling City Sound, has built an impressive roster of artists, including saxophonist Dave Liebman, drummer Gerry Gibbs and others who have made acclaimed CDs for the label over the past 18 years. Like many jazz label founders, Weiss was a big fan of the music early on. He explained, “It started back in high school with the love of the music. My dream was to be an A&R man and I also looked at becoming a recording engineer. I grew up near New York City, so I considered going to the RCA Institute. I became a big jazz fan through my older brother and collected records. At the end of the last century, I began a career in the fiber optic business. There was a big boom in 1999 and I thought that I was going to be wealthy. It frustrated me that the people I’d go to hear weren’t available on CD in general, so I talked to some local musicians. I started a label with some of them, a vocalist named Marcelle Gauvin and piano player/ arranger John Harrison. We agreed that the first CD would be Marcelle’s, produced by John. It was called Faces of Love. It was a very good CD that stands up to this day. I managed to continue through the ups and downs of the fiber-optic industry; we had collapses in 2001 and 2008.”

Weiss’ goals are straight forward: “We try to be first-class in four areas: composition, performance, recording and packaging. We want them all to be equally strong and I view the competition as Sony, Blue Note and Verve.”

The traditional business model for record labels was to find talent, sometimes help put musicians together, choose repertoire and book the studio, though it has changed in the digital era. Weiss does a little of everything, though most CDs are already complete by the time he hears from an artist. “They’re already mastered and someone will come to me. If I want it, we’ll try to work out a deal.” It’s not surprising that Weiss is bombarded with CDs seeking his investment. Most Whaling City Sound CDs are by artists he admires, though he occasionally takes referrals from them. “I recall getting a CD from Rale Micic called Night Music. I never heard of him but I was absolutely convinced that I could say no in good conscience and it wouldn’t be a problem. I put it on as I went to sleep and the first track killed me [laughs]!... Even in the times when I’m prepared to walk away, sometimes I can’t. Right now I’m overwhelmed, scheduled into next year and figure out where the funds are coming from. I’m trying to figure out how to make better sense of this economic enterprise.”

When needed, Weiss doesn’t hesitate to take an active role on a record date. “I’ve only done two or three vanity projects, where I chose the band and music and told people what to do. There are a few that are in between where I’m in the studio and make suggestions about material or an arrangement. For example, the late Joe Beck did one called Trio 7 with [bassist] Santi Debriano and [drummer] Thierry Arpino. He was doing an acid-jazz version of ‘Impressions’ and I asked him to open and close it with a solo. He liked that idea and thanked me for it.” Other artists praise Weiss for his rapport with them. NEA Jazz Master saxophonist Dave Liebman, who has recorded for numerous labels, said, “Neal Weiss is definitely one of the most generous and enthusiastic producers out there. Everyone at Whaling City Sound from Ginny Shea, who does PR, and David Arruda, who is a top CD designer, is committed to the music.” Saxophonist Greg Abate, who has made several CDs for Weiss, shared his views: “Neal is a consummate professional, ethical businessman and a patron of the arts. He’s a generous, non-biased person whose word is his bond. I am fortunate to be on his label. Neal has nurtured a great record label and has been so accommodating. He does a lot of promotion and allows me the freedom to do what I want to do. When he makes suggestions about my music, he will say, ‘I can ask but you don’t have to say yes.’” Guitarist John Stein, who has issued ten CDs on the label, agrees: “The record business is not great now. It has changed from the old days, when you had a hit record, everybody made money. I’m just an artist who is trying to document my art. There aren’t that many good people. They lie to you or don’t say what they’re going to do. If you’re naïve, you can be taken advantage of. Neal is as honest as the day is long. He’s sincere and doesn’t bullshit you. He is who he says he is. That’s a pleasure in this business.”

One of the biggest successes for Whaling City Sound has been drummer Gerry Gibbs. Weiss said, “Gerry is unusual. He has a remarkable ability to produce products and projects down to minute detail. We did a two-CD set of Miles’ electric music. He went in and did a marathon single day of recording little bits and pieces and by the end of the night, he had it stitched together what little interludes go between this track and that track, over two hours of music, and he knew exactly what the order and segues were going to be, because he had that all figured out. He didn’t necessarily record them in that order, but he knew just what this thing should sound like before he walked in. I think that’s one of the things that Kenny Barron and Ron Carter really appreciated about him. We did three CDs with them. There’s a generational and experience difference, but they quickly respected him for his ability to not waste their time.”

Gibbs doesn’t mince words when it comes to working with Weiss: “Neal is completely old school. He believes people want great packaging and a story behind why someone recorded what they did. He creates elaborate booklets with art, pictures, information and whatever else the artist wants to put into the packaging... Neal makes sure that there is always something that makes it worth buying the actual CD to keep in your collection for a lifetime just like we all do with LPs. Neal also loves every kind of jazz, where many labels want to only push one type. He loves bebop, straightahead, fusion, avant garde, jazz rock, etc. He releases music on his label of every type of jazz and a few bands he likes that have nothing to do with jazz.”

One of Weiss’ most satisfying achievements was convincing one of his longtime favorites, vibraphone great Terry Gibbs (father to Gerry and who officially retired from performing at the age of 90 in 2015), to make a new recording. An informal jam session in Gibbs’ living room with Gerry, pianist John Campbell and bassist Mike Gurrola was recorded on iPhone by Gerry’s wife and promptly shared on YouTube, where it promptly got 46,000 hits overnight. Weiss was fascinated with this performance: “He took about a three-minute solo and it’s fantastic. Then he sits down on the sofa and his dog is walking around. So we had a discussion and Gerry also talked to him. After Terry saw the many hits his YouTube video got, he realized ‘Maybe I got one more in me.’”

Terry Gibbs enjoyed the feedback, but was reluctant to take on the project. “Neal’s been after me to record for years. I told him I don’t record or play anymore. 80 years is enough!” But Weiss persisted and after the video hits continued to build, Gibbs relented, but he insisted on several conditions: “I don’t want to use a studio, I’ll record a jam session at my house. He paid the guys for four days in case I got tired. I figured we’d do two or three tunes in one day and get enough in four days to make an album. We recorded 31 songs. We never heard what we played. We went from one tune to another. He brought one of those sophisticated recording boards that they have in the studio. Out of 31 songs, I picked out 14 to make a 78-minute album, then Gerry took it back to New York and mixed it. Nobody records like this; this is how you recorded in the old days with one microphone.”

Like many jazz label owners, turning a profit in their business is difficult, as Weiss explained: “I haven’t figured out how to make money, so the angle is trying not to lose as much. I would like to get to the point where it is almost self-sustaining. I have worked another job my whole life and I am now half-retired from day jobs and devoting more time to the music. That’s number one. When I first started about 18 years ago, people said, ‘Have fun, but don’t expect to get any radio airplay, there’s so much stuff out there.’ Almost from the get-go, we created a buzz among the jazz programmers and program directors, to the point where some of my early promoters said they were getting upset at me because new CDs weren’t coming fast enough. I don’t take it literally, but one programmer said, ‘We don’t bother to preview Whaling City Sound CDs anymore. We just open the envelope and put them on the air.’ I don’t believe that, but I love the sentiment. That’s what we’re after, for them to have confidence that they should at least take a listen to us.”

There are plenty of CDs due out soon or in the works. Weiss notes, “In New Bedford, there’s a group of brothers known as Tavaras. I’m hoping to get something more mainstream issued by one of them, There’s a bassist named Dave Zinno and through a combination of circumstances I will have four different CDs by him out soon. The first is a band that goes by AGNZ, that’s a bit of a fusion group with Adam Nussbaum, Dino Govoni, Jay Azzolina and Dave. I have a trio led by the drummer Steve Langone with pianist Kevin Harris and Dave. I have a duet with guitarist John Stein and Dave, a kind of quiet dialogue. Then Leo Genovese, Rafael Barata and Boston-based tenor Mike Tucker and Dave went into the studio. Miles Donahue, a trumpeter, saxophonist and composer, whom I’ve known for years, has a new one with Mike Stern, Jerry Bergonzi and other good players, that will be out in the summer. I put out a CD by a young local sax player, Marcus Monteiro, about ten years ago. His first one was MM4. It was kind of edgy funk. Jazz guys didn’t like it because it had too many modern elements. I wanted to record him closer to a jazz setting, so I got Steve Langone again, John Harrison and Fernando Huergo, a Berklee professor and electric bassist I love. That should be out soon.”

Historical releases are also of interest. “I’m talking to a party whom I can’t name who is digitizing tapes of a prominent band. There’s a club owner in New York who has a bible of everyone from when he ran a club on the West Coast. Now that I’ve had releases by Phil Woods and Terry Gibbs, I’ve thought about having something like ‘Legends For the New Century’ to try to introduce the audience to amazing people of the past.”

Ken Dryden- The New York City Jazz Record, May 2017 pg.11, 46

What Program Directors and Music Directors at National Jazz Radio are saying about Whaling City Sound:

"quality of WCS is a given and will most likely always be added to our rotation"

- Lester A. French Jr., Jazz Director / WMEB 91.9FM Orono, ME

"Whaling City Sound has always been a reliable resource for new voices in Mainstream Jazz."

- B.H. Hudson / WNCU - Raleigh, NC

"There are many record labels based in New England, but Whaling City Sound is the cream of the crop. They're not only documenting the original jazz emanating from New England, but delivering that music to the world in a tight, pleasing and progressive package. There's not a week that goes by without a Whaling City Sound disc being heard on New England's Jazz And Folk Station. Keep wailin' Whaling City Sound!!!"

- Joe Zupan / WICN - Worcester, MA

"Consistently in recent years Whaling City Sound has provided this station and the music rich Nashville market an impressive, expressive roster of talent including many of whom we're presently playing (Moretti, Beck, Leibman,Monteiro & Robitaille). It's a welcome, viable alternative to the steady flow of music from the "3 coasts'".

- Greg Lee / WMOT- Nashville, TN

"Over the past few years we have come to truly appreciate the releases from Whaling City Sound. Whaling City has consistenly provided us with great releases that we have been happy to share with our listeners. Whaling City Sound has been a constant on our playlists, and reported on our top ten lists. Keep the music flowing!"

- Ken Irwin / WMUA - Amherst, MA

"In a world where it seems that even jazz musicians want to be "rock stars"; where the hype precedes the accomplishments or dues-paying; where the popularity of a musician's work can be determined or even manipulated by the most superficial means, Whaling City Sound has quietly, stubbornly, turned out recordings of substance, artistry, and grace, that satisfy the heart and soul of anybody with a pair of ears and a brain between them."

- Chris Sampson / WHUS - Storrs, CT

"I appreciate the high quality of Whaling City Sound recordings. They have a rich diversity of artists, and they capture the full array of jazz varieties. From swing, to bebop, great jazz vocalists, and instrumentalists. Whaling City Sound leaves nothing to the jazz imagination."

- Renee Williams / WCLK - Atlanta, GA

"As Music Director for one of the few remaining full-time jazz stations in the USA, I look forward to receiving Whaling City CDs. They are nicely packaged with all the necessary information about the contents easily accessed by our on-air hosts and their music covers straight-ahead, edgy, vocals and Latin which are all part of our daily jazz programming."

- Arturo Gómez / KUVO - Denver, CO

"Whaling City Sound time and time again has sent me great product. I know what to expect when one of their CDs comes across my desk: quality sound, packaging and most of all - great jazz! Keep up the good work!"

- Michael A.Valentine / WDNA - Miami, FL

"I always await new releases from Whaling City Sounds with anticipation. With his label, Neal Weiss consistently provides excellent music to the jazz enthusiast and it's easy to love introducing listeners to his artists and the bright moments he captures."

- Mark Rynearson / DMX - Worldwide

"Whaling City has done a tremendous job of documenting the art and genius of the top performers in New England. Their recordings are consistently engaging and entertaining and the packaging and promotion reflect the excellence of the product. They are one of a handful of labels that seem driven to make each release special and we all have benefited from their efforts."

- Will Kinnally / Music Choice - Worldwide

"From listening to a number of their albums over the is pretty clear to me that Whaling City Sound and its impressive roster of artists have one very important philosophy and that is to satisfy the demands of a jazz audience hungry for quality."

- Eric Cohen / WAER - Syracuse, NY

"Whaling City is one of a handful of labels that I look forward to every release that they put out. I appreciate their commitment to quality music and progressive artists. It is small labels like Whaling City in which I believe the future of recorded jazz music will be dependent upon - with major labels cutting back their rosters in a big way. Thank goodness for Whaling City and other independent labels that are supporting the art and fostering deserving artists"

- Brad Stone / KSJS - San Jose, CA

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