With no binding contracts, no specific mission, and an acceptance of any jazz style, Sunnyside is a relaxed independent label. They simply release music that they like, from a flirtatious disc of boleros from Spanish singer Martirio, to an eloquent disc from pianist Laurent Coq. They also license albums from European labels that otherwise would not be available in the United States.
Zalacain started the company in 1982. He met pianist Harold Danko one night at the Village Vanguard and a friendship ensued. When Danko had the idea to make a duo disc with bassist Rufus Reid, Zalacain rented a studio and recorded the album. Soon after he recorded Kirk Lightsey playing solo piano. A Lee Konitz album followed, and without meaning to, Zalacain had established a record label. Two decades later, hundreds of CDs make up Sunnyside's catalog. Since they don't lock their artists into signed contractual agreements, Sunnyside's relationship with their artists is more like an affair than a marriage, Zalacain explained. "They stay with us because they like to stay."
Some artists have been with the label for many years. Singer Meredith d'Ambrosio just released her 14th album Love Is For The Birds. Jerry Gonzalez has recorded four discs on Sunnyside since the mid '80s. And others are just starting out the jazz life. The 29- year-old trumpet player Michael Leonhart has already released his third disc on Sunnyside. Pianist Guillermo Klein, also in his late 20s released his second album Los Guachos III after his highly successful Sunnyside debut Los Guachos II. 32-year-old pianist Deidre Rodman's second album Simple Stories comes out this month. Sunnyside released her debut Sun Is Us after it arrived in the mail two years ago. "After listening to it once, I picked up the phone and called her," he said.
Usually Sunnyside finds new artists through their current ones. Zalacain met Leonhardt after going to see pianist Guillermo Klein's band play. "It happens the way you make friends," he said. "A friend invites you to his house - you make a new friend."
Last year Zalacain met the Dutch saxophone player Mark Mommaas. "[Armen Donelian] didn't play solo all the time because he invited Mark up for some duets. It was obvious to everyone in the audience that this guy was extraordinary." Mommaas happened to be finishing up a project and he didn't have a label. Sunnyside is releasing his album Global Motion this month.
Aside from good music, Sunnyside looks for a unique voice. "That's what you're looking for," said Zalacain. "Why is a jazz singer going to attract your ear? Because she has something unique. It's the same with instrumentalists."
The biggest thrill so far came last year when Brazilian singer Luciana Souza's album Brazilian Duos was nominated for a Grammy. "The nomination was very surprising, because it was a record of Brazilian songs. She sang in Portuguese. To be nominated for Best Jazz Vocal Album was a happy surprise," Zalacain said.
The crew went to Madison Square Garden for the event and waited for three hours for the Jazz Vocal Album category. Diana Krall won, as the group had expected, so they set off for a nice dinner at the trendy, French-Thai restaurant, Vong. When they arrived, the host asked them where they had come from. They told him they had been at the Grammy Awards. He said "My father was a musician." "He was the son of Lee Morgan!" exclaimed Zalacain. "We didn't win the Grammy but we met the son of Lee Morgan that night."
This year, 80 percent of Sunnyside's releases will be licenses; Two years ago, it was only two percent. This dramatic increase resulted after the label signed on with Ryko for distribution. Many licenses come from France. Last year Sunnyside put out a French chanson compilation called Caf' De Flore, Rendez-Vous A Saint-Germain Des-Pres. Originally recorded for Universal France, the disc was popular in America. This month Sunnyside will release eight licensed albums from the French label Owl, a division of Universal. Some were recorded over ten years ago, including pianist Steve Kuhn's Oceans In The Sky, with bassist Miroslav Vitous, and drummer Aldo Romano; a duo album called No Tears No Goodbyes with singer Helen Merrill and pianist Gordon Beck; pianist Paul Bley and bassist Gary Peacock's duo disc Partners ; and another duo album called Paris Blues, with pianist Gil Evans and saxophonist Steve Lacy. Sunnyside also licenses albums from the Spanish label Karonte, including a beautiful album from the pianist Chano Dominguez.
"I was surprised to find that there is a taste in the U.S. for this music," Zalacain said. "There is a taste for not only music recorded here but also music from other places."
While many of Sunnyside's own artists bring influences from their native lands to their music, most of them currently live in New York. "Nationality has no relevance, but we like them to live here," he said. "It's difficult to have an affair with people not in your city."