The first thing you notice about a Hyena Records release is just that - you notice it. A bright red cover announces each disc, along with a snarling (or is it laughing?) hyena, and the label eschews the traditional jewel case in favor of a plastic Q-pack. "I want people to walk into record stores and ask, 'what do you have on Hyena?'" says industry legend Joel Dorn, who takes a hands-on approach to running the label.
Inside is a giant unfolding paper square that bears all the information a curious listener could want: original liner notes, commentary by friends of the artist and off-the-cuff remarks from Dorn, who has been a friend of every artist whose work he releases. This exhaustive hodge-podge is echoed by the music on the CDs. On Hyena's Rahsaan Roland Kirk release, The Man Who Cried Fire , the tracks meander through a live set, riddled throughout with priceless remarks by Kirk.
What Dorn is trying to do with this is to capture the spirit and the atmosphere of the music. Hyena's live releases do not mix out the audience or compress the dynamic range of the recordings. You get what the audience got that night, warts and all. This philosophy has informed all of Dorn's work, from his days heading up Atlantic's A&R division, where he worked with the likes of Charles Mingus, Max Roach, Mose Allison, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Yusef Lateef, David "Fathead" Newman, Freddie Hubbard, Keith Jarrett, Gary Burton, Ray Bryant, Les McCann, Lee Harris, Roberta Flack and Bette Midler, right on up to his stewardship over his short-lived labels Night Music, 32 Records and Label M.
Dorn is also very attentive to the value of sequencing his releases. For much of the ‘60s, he was a radio disc jockey in Philadelphia, where he learned about the importance of sequencing. "When I was a disc jockey," says Dorn, "you lived and died by what you played, and if the music wasn't any good, [listeners] didn't stay with you long. I learned that you better have a beginning, a middle and an end."
His careful sequencing (he was the man behind the curtain for the crossover hit, Jazz for a Rainy Afternoon, that spawned the Jazz for... series) allows him to articulate a mood with his releases, though often that mood simply boils down to his pure joy at listening to the music. "I've got a record I'm going to do called Stuff I Dig, and all it really is is stuff I personally dig." He goes on to describe the creative process for a forthcoming live jazz compilation: "Right now I'm in the tub, I've got a boombox by the tub, and I'm picking the songs. And it's going to be what I think is really exciting live jazz that kind of gives you a great picture of what that time and place was in the ‘60s and ‘70s, because that's when I had my nose open the widest."
One of the criticisms that people have made of Hyena is that it only specializes in reissues, that it has not offered anything new (in addition to the Kirk reissue, Les McCann's Les is More , Cannonball Adderley's Radio Nights and Eddie Harris' A Tale of Two Cities ). Dorn responds to that by explaining that in the ‘60s and the ‘70s, "it was raining artists, and I had my butterfly net out. I was catching them and trying to get them in the studio and wailing. So now it's not so much that I'm reliving my past that I'm working with a certain kind of a period." Besides, "I consider a compilation a new thing."
And many of his releases are new things, even as they are old things. "I have thousands of hours of tapes stashed away, of all kinds of music," he says referring to live shows and sessions that were "what I like to call 'privately recorded'." Some were gigs at small clubs where artists worked out ideas for music that they went on to record for labels like Blue Note and Prestige. Others were jam sessions or living room recordings. He says he will probably get to releasing some of those thousands of hours, but also that he is looking for a new artist that will "really ring my bell." On tap next for Hyena is a series of four compilations, another Kirk release ( Compliments of the Mysterious Phantom ) and a new studio album by James Blood Ulmer. "When I get a new label," Dorn says of the open-ended nature of Hyena Records, "first you start the new label. Then you figure out what you're going to do."