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Giant Step Arts

As a longtime professional photographer who has documented 550 recording sessions and shot over 200 magazine covers, Jimmy Katz spent countless hours in recording studios over the past 30 years, hobnobbing with top engineers while on assignment. A lifelong jazz fan with the utmost respect for the musicians he photographs, Katz decided to pool his resources in starting up his own innovative nonprofit jazz label, Giant Step Arts, which he launched in January of 2018. 

While maintaining his career as an esteemed photographer—he has published seven books of his iconic portraits and had one-man shows in Vienna, Berlin, Rotterdam, Perugia, Tokyo, and New York City—Katz began pursuing a parallel interest in recording engineering around 2011 by documenting up-and-coming artists at New York City jazz clubs like Small’s, Kitano, Klavierhaus, and the Jazz Gallery (in its previous downtown location on Hudson Street). In forming Giant Step Arts, his twin interests have dovetailed into a worthy enterprise, though he is quick to point out how his label is radically different from all other labels.

“I laid out this fairly ambitious idea that we would do everything a record label does, except that we wouldn’t sell any music, that only the musicians themselves would sell music and benefit from the sale of music,” Katz explained. “So Giant Step Arts takes in funds from donors but we don’t own anything. The musicians own the masters and only they are allowed to sell the music. And they can sell digitally or they can sell CDs. We offer them 24-bit/96kHz digital downloads and 800 CDs per project. So if they want to cut deals with distributors, they can do that. If they want to sell them directly on gigs, they can do that. If they want to sell things off of Bandcamp, they can do that. And I did that very consciously because there’s a whole history of musicians being taken advantage of by record labels. So I came up with a model that I thought was really musician-oriented. My number one goal as a non-profit is to put as much money in the hands of the musicians as I possibly can.”

With Jimmy recording everything himself, his wife Deana Katz doing all the CD cover designs, and Jimmy doing all the photography himself, Giant Step Arts projects is a mom-and-pop operation with a distinct, classy look and a brilliant sound to boot. To date, Giant Step Arts has released acclaimed recordings by drummer Johnathan Blake (2018’s Trion), saxophonist Eric Alexander (2019’s Leap of Faith), alto saxophonist Michael Thomas (2020’s 2-CD set, Event Horizon) and trumpeter Jason Palmer (2019’s Rhyme and Reason and 2020’s sensational 2-CD set, The Concert: 12 Musings for Isabella).

“That last project that we did with Jason Palmer was one of the greatest projects that I’ve ever been connected with in any way, shape, or form over the last 30 years,” said Katz regarding Musings for Isabella, Palmer’s tribute to Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum with tenor saxophonist Mark Turner, vibraphonist Joel Ross, bassist Edward Perez, and drummer Kendrick Scott. Each piece on the double CD is named after a particular painting that hangs in the museum, including Rembrandt’s “A Lady and Gentleman in Black,” Degas’ “Program for an Artistic Soiree,” and Vermeer’s “The Concert.” Said Katz, “I think it’s a masterpiece on a lot of different levels. The composing is great and everybody in the band is on the highest level.”

Regarding his recording of Palmer’s album at the Vanderbilt Penthouse, Katz says he got lucky. “It was a very unique situation because we got a $25,000-a-night penthouse suite to record in for free at this hotel. Donatella Versace had rented it for over a month before we were there. So this is like one of the greatest suites you can stay in anywhere in New York City, and the hotel manager gave us that suite for free for two days to record in. They even gave Jason a room to stay in with his family for three nights when he came down from Boston. So everything went incredibly well.”

Katz said his inspirations for his own live recordings are such classic jazz albums as John Coltrane’s Live at the Village Vanguard, Bill Evans’ Sunday at the Village Vanguard, and Sonny Rollins’ A Night at the Village Vanguard. “I’m looking for that kind of a vibe because I feel like one of the influences of pop music in jazz is that musicians, record producers, and labels have gone toward this very produced style of making records in the studio. I want to capture the energy of a live performance in small, intimate settings, where you feel that if the drummer dropped his sticks it would hit you in the head. 

“The biggest challenge of live recording in general is making sure you have enough isolation on each of the microphones so that you can adjust the sound when you mix it,” Katz said. “If you don’t have isolation, it doesn’t really matter how good your mics are. In other words, if you have isolation when you multi-track record, there’s only so much you can do in post-production. And we multi-track because I want the musicians to have the flexibility to say, ‘I’d really like to bring the bass up’ or ‘I want to bring the solos up.’” 

Katz continued, “The biggest thing people don’t understand about live recording is that the room is the big elephant, meaning the room determines what you can do. So if you have a great-sounding room, it’s not hard to make a great sounding record.”

For saxophones, Katz favors the Flea47 mic, which is a clone of the vintage Neumann 47 by Telefunken. For trumpets, he uses an AEA R44C, which is an exact replica of the big RCA 44BX ribbon mic from the 1930s. “My gear tastes are very high end,” he said. “I always wanted the best microphones I could get because I felt I was recording the greatest musicians in the world and I didn’t want to look back and say, ‘Oh, gosh, I wish I was able to get Mark Turner’s tone a little bit more accurately by using a better microphone.’ Basically, I want recordings to sound like you are there in the room, and I want there to be clarity with each instrument.”

And though the pandemic has caused Katz to postpone projects, he is using this downtime to appeal to donors with a unique pre-pay policy he has instituted with the musicians on his roster. “When the effects of the virus started to impact the jazz community, I reached out to a number of musicians and decided what I wanted to do was pre-pay them for performances that would take place sometime in the future just so they could pay some bills. And my donors were thrilled that I was doing this. So we’ve actually pre-paid a number of musicians for performances.” 

Added Katz, “You’re only on the planet for a set number of years so the idea is to do as much good as you possibly can. I think that should be everybody’s goal. And so I try to do the best I can. I put a lot of time into it. And hopefully the artistry of the musicians shines through.”

Spoken like a true jazz mensch.

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