DONALD EDWARDS SIGHS AND PUSHES back from his drum kit, shoving open the French doors that separate him from the rest of his band. They have been laboring over the same 45 seconds of music—a rhythmically devious opening that only a drummer could invent—for 45 minutes. Much has been accomplished on this December day in the palatial, moldy elegance of New Orleans’ Kingsway Studio, yet with each false start the tension increases: To stay on schedule, the band must finish two more songs before quitting for the evening. Next door, Mark Elliott, the 27-year-old producer and co-founder of Dallas’ Leaning House Records, sits at the mixing board, his hair mussed, staring out a window as the shadows grow long on the streets of the French Quarter; he is losing light along with the collective focus of his musicians. Edwards wanders into the control room, and they murmur in low tones, Elliott looking down, rubbing a spot on the ï¿½oor with his shoe. “It takes a mental thing, you know,” Edwards says, clearly frustrated. He lingers a moment, then walks back to his drums for another take. He has no other choice.
The tape rolls again, and this time the band sails through the introduction, swinging furiously until seconds before the end, when something—a sound—goes by very fast. The musicians laugh nervously. Hoping for a reprieve, they listen to a playback, but tape, as always, is unmerciful. It’s a perfect take save for one glaring and uncorrectable bad note. No one speaks. Elliott’s dark mood drops like a curtain as he abruptly stands and stretches. He smiles at Edwards, who has been eyeing him cautiously. “Want to try it again?”
Elliott and his 27-year-old partner, Keith Foerster, have come to Kingsway—a sprawling 1860 mansion owned by producer Daniel Lanois—to record what will be the eighth release for Leaning House, their ï¿½edgling jazz label. Friends since their elementary school days in Dallas, Elliott—medium build, intense, engaging—and Foerster—tall, serious, quiet—grew up as self-described misfits. Neither had a particularly keen interest in music until 1987, when Elliott first heard a Charlie Parker record and started on the seductive path of discovery that every jazz fan experiences. He came to revere vintage jazz recordings not only for their music but also for their sound, look, and feel; each was an audible memento of irretrievable history. After a whimsical attempt to start a jazz band, the pair began attending gigs around Dallas and getting to know the players, and soon Elliott was inviting musicians to record at a studio where he was studying engineering. By the time they graduated from Southern Methodist University in 1993—Foerster with an accounting degree, Elliott with a psychology degree—they were talking about starting their own label.
At first it was just that: talk. “Up to a point, these experimental sessions were just sort of piddling,” Elliott recalls. “We were not doing anything of great consequence.” Then he and Foerster met saxophonist Marchel Ivery, who is the stuff of legend in the Dallas area (“Tenor of the Times,” TM, March 1997). A thirty-year veteran of the jazz scene, Ivery could have made serious waves on either coast, but as a family man, he chose to stay close to home for most of his career, working the Texas rhythm and blues circuit, putting in fifteen years with pianist Red Garland and even a short stint in Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. Although Ivery was 55 when Elliott and Foerster coaxed him into the studio in 1994, he had never led his own recording session. Initially, he wasn’t sure what to make of these two young kids hanging around. “Were they for real or was it some kind of put-on?” Ivery remembers thinking. “But they kept coming, and they impressed upon me that they were genuine in what they wanted to do. So I went for it. I guess I should’ve done it long ago. I’ve had opportunities, but not doing the material I wanted to do. I waited for the right moment.”
“When Ivery expressed trust in our abilities to take his project on,” Elliott says, “that was really inspiring, because we didn’t know anything back then.” Indeed, the pair had no inkling whatsoever about the record business when they began the sessions that produced Ivery’s solo debut, Marchel’s Mode. But like so many fans, they knew what they wanted: to make an album in the tradition of classic Blue Note and Prestige recordings, from the ambience right down to the artwork. They had enough money saved between them to make it happen. They had the smarts to pull it off. And, like Ivery, they knew the right moment when they saw it.
Flush with pride, Elliott and Foerster took the tapes to California to be mastered by Phil De Lancie, who had worked on records by John Coltrane, Miles Davis, and other jazz legends. Only while talking to De Lancie did it occur to Elliott that he had no idea what to do next. “He’s working on the master,” Elliott recalls, “and at one point he turns to me and says, ‘So what are you guys planning on doing with this?’ And I say, ‘We’re going to sell it.’ He asks, ‘Do you have a distributor?’ and I say, ‘No, but we’re going to get one. It’s a good record. It has [legendary Dallas pianist] Cedar Walton on it. I think people will like it.’ And he says, ‘Yeah, but you know, there’s a lot of records out there. What are you guys going to do?’ It was our first reality check. We weren’t in Texas anymore. We weren’t around anyone who would have any reason to appreciate what we were doing. I guess it was naive, but it wasn’t until then that I worried we had done something we weren’t really prepared to follow through with. Fortunately enough in the jazz world, there are a lot of little labels out there.”
There was about to be one more. Leaning House—a label appropriately named for Elliott’s eighty-year-old