Two decades ago, a 26-year-old Vancouver tenor saxophonist took out a loan from the bank of dad to buy a jazz club. At the time, Cory Weeds figured he was embarking on an adventure that would be sweet and short. By anyone’s estimate, he was probably reading the situation right.Located below street level on West Broadway in a space previously occupied by a long-lived pizza parlour, the Cellar Jazz Club was a long way from the usual downtown rooms, artist-run spaces and assorted east-side dives improvised music groovers hung out in. The room was small, clean and served up a full menu for patrons to dine on while they took in some swinging sounds. When it finally closed its doors in 2014, the venue had been tagged by Downbeat Magazine as one of the world’s best jazz clubs.

That would be honours enough for many, but Weeds had also started a label in 2001, to release live-off-the-floor club dates by artists he booked that could serve as an additional level of promotion for the room. Cellar Live celebrates 20 years this year and is going stronger than ever. In fact, 2021 will be the label’s biggest year for releases on its three imprints — Cellar Live, Cellar Music and archival Reel to Real Recordings.

“I joke that I’ve been trying to put this label out of business for the past two decades, but what started out as a live label to compliment the Cellar sort of turned into an international label that continues to thrive and adjust to all the changes in the music business,” says Weeds. “I’m a musician first, so before anything I think that other artists are able to instantly grasp that I’m in it for the right reasons. While I’ll never pay my mortgage from it or even draw a salary off of it, thanks to some great investors, grants such as FACTOR’s comprehensive music company program and the occasional angel, I’m still able to keep releasing music by artists I’m passionate about.”Weeds has every right to blow his horn.
Cellar Music Group already has over 200 albums in its catalogue and — pandemic or no — 2021 will be a year-long celebration of exciting new releases from local, national and international acts. The anniversary began with O sole mio!, a collection of nine classic Italian tunes rendered in swinging fashion by an organ quartet fronted by Weeds and featuring Mike LeDonne’s Hammond B3 organ, Peter Bernstein’s guitar and Joe Farnsworth’s drumming. From the title track to the Theme from the Godfather and Capricci di Camere, the album is in keeping with a lot of the soul/jazz orientation of Cellar Live releases.
Saxophonist Steve Kaldestad has released three albums on the label, as well as appearing on a host of other recordings such as Jesse Cahill’s Nightcrawlers — another organ-sporting soul/jazz orchestra — and Jodi Proznick’s quartet. The in-demand musician also teaches at Capilano University’s acclaimed music program that has graduated some of the most lauded jazz musicians in Canada. Kaldestad first met Weeds in 2001 and describes the meeting as an “instant click.”
“We had the same tastes and I consider him one of my best friends and we talk every day,” says Kaldestad. “And I can’t support him enough as he keeps pumping CDs out, coming up with live streaming opportunities and more during this pandemic. I’ve got my three releases out and was scheduled to record my fourth CD this month, but that is being held off until probably July following recent changes.”

Kaldestad’s last record, New York Afternoon, was recorded in the Unity Centre in NYC with backing from pianist Renee Rosnes, bassist Peter Washington and drummer Lewis Nash. The album is one a few recordings to come out of another of Weeds’ entrepreneurial ventures, the New York with Cory Weeds music tours. The annual tour of the “city that never sleeps” was conceived by Weeds after a few visits to New York where he developed contacts with other club owners, reinforced relationships with artists that had played the Cellar Jazz Club and conceived of taking groups of jazz lovers to the city to catch V.I.P. recording sessions, exclusive performances and more.

Strengthening the connections between Vancouver and New York since his first trip in 2002, resulted in Weeds being able to book and record some great collaborations between Canadian and U.S. musicians. A personal highlight for him was getting the legendary keyboardist Dr. Lonnie Smith to record with his band Crash. Another New York connection is with Spike Wilner, the musician/owner of Smalls Jazz Club. Wilner runs the Smalls Live Foundation, which commissions recordings, and Cellar Live is partnering up with the foundation to release some albums. The Spike Wilner Trio’s Aliens and Wizards is the first.

“I’m very happy that, thanks to Cory Weeds, I can list off that record as one of the few achievements of the past year,” says Spike Wilner. “We had gone up and done a few tours to Vancouver to play the Cellar and one of his bartenders now works for me, so there has always been a fair amount of back and forth. I actually patterned the idea for my label, Smalls Live, which is now a non-profit foundation, from his Cellar Live concept.”

Wilner notes that it is due to Weeds’ business savvy that he is still producing records for the standard retail market at a time when the bottom has all but crashed out of that kind of music product. Weeds also entered into a partnership with Brooklyn-based label La Reserve, which will represent the Cellar Music Group catalogue and all its future releases for digital distribution.

“Cory’s really an anachronism, with a 20-year-old label that has developed a network of mom and pop stores, journalists and radio stations that he keeps working product to,” says Wilner. “We’re hoping to do a series with him where we finance the recordings and he can carry them in his catalogue. Aliens and Wizards was the first of those projects, where I used my own trio as the guinea pig to see how the whole thing would work logistically and so forth.”

The other big collaboration in this anniversary year is with American trumpeter Jeremy Pelt.

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Designed to showcase the work of Black artists, Cellar Music Group is releasing three recordings produced by Pelt over the next year. Each of the three artists will be provided with touring opportunities, clinics and master classes. The label will also make a monetary contribution to a Black-led charity of the individual artist’s choice. Trumpeter Bruce Harris’s Soundview is due on June 4. It will be followed by singer-saxophonist Michael Stephenson’s project with bassist Alex Claffy and a new record from pianist Anthony Wonsey. Weeds felt that this initiative was the best way to show genuine support to the Black Lives Matter movement.

“Jazz has always reflected the times and, sadly, we are once again bearing witness to the racial injustice in the United States, wherein Black people’s lives are constantly at risk, particularly by those sworn to protect its citizens,” he says. “The Cellar Music Group recognizes that jazz is not only a music native to America, but that the progenitors of this music are the very lives that are being threatened daily. This initiative began in the spirit of allyship and to amplify Black voices and their stories.”From the New York co-productions to coming releases from vocalist Dee Daniels titled the Promise (May 7), Calgary’s Angela Wrigley Trio’s You Don’t Know What Love Is (June 18) and a string orchestra project titled What is There to Say featuring Weeds and special guest Phil Dwyer, Cellar Live is going along strong. Weeds says he’s dedicated to coming up with as many ways as possible to keep the music coming.Along the way, Weeds gets to cross off some of his own dreams, too, such as recording a session in the legendary Rudy van Gelder studio where so many of the most important Blue Note albums of all time were cut. Most of all, he says that he keeps inspired by the family feel of the venture.“It’s always been a very insular and tight group of people who are involved in the mixing and the engineering and so forth, whether in Vancouver or New York,” he says. “These are my people, my friends, and I want them to be the ones benefiting from what we put out. Because the artists who worked with me at the beginning, people like Chris Gestrin and Brad Turner, put so much into the projects and then billed me so little that it could happen.”

Watch for more Cellar Live 20th anniversary releases and events through 2021. A number of the artists who have recorded for the label can be seen at this year’s TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival’s Pyatt Hall and Frankie’s Jazz Club concert series

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Stuart Derdeyn