It's all about jazz, man

New recordings at Chicago Sessions

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By PHIL MOREHART

Nick Eipers didn't go looking for jazz. Jazz found him.

Working as a recording engineer and producer after graduating from Columbia College in 1994, the Brookfield resident manned the mixing boards for a variety of musicians, from classical ensembles to rock acts. The local jazz greats that he was recording and their struggles struck a chord, though.

"I found myself working on great albums that weren't getting the recognition they deserved," remembers Eipers. Even projects that had potential to reach wide, mainstream audiences were falling on deaf ears and failing to garner any record label interest.

"As an engineer, you don't usually get involved in that side of the business, though," says Eipers.

That soon changed.

In 2008, Eipers founded Chicago Sessions, a record label devoted exclusively to Chicago-based jazz. To date, 18 albums have been released under the Chicago Sessions flag. It's a diverse lot that touches all levels of the jazz world, from world renowned pianist Howard Levy's straight stylings to experimental soundscapes by Paul Wertico's MidÐEast/MidÐWest Alliance and all points in between.

Chicago Sessions artists can be found in most independent record stores throughout the Chicago area, but that wasn't always the case.

The label started as a subscription-based service, functioning much like an old school record club a la Columbia House, but devoted to one label specifically. In order to buy an album on the Chicago Sessions label, one had to commit to all of the label's releases. This release format, coupled with exposure to unsung, local jazz artists, cemented Eipers' desire to jump into the business side of the music biz.

Another legendary label helped, too.

"I was exploring the work on the ACM label and I found myself liking both the music and the production so much. An idea popped into my head that I was 'subscribing' to their label because I had so many of their albums."

Eipers hoped that the subscription format would create a tight, niche-based collector-driven label, but one that would still generate enough interest to sustain itself. He also hoped that it would cross-pollinate jazz fans. Lovers of piano trios would be exposed to guitar-based Latin jazz, and so on.

"The subscription was the exciting part," says Eipers.

Equally exciting was the mission statement that Eipers' devised for his fledgling label: to release work by Chicago talent only and to release albums featuring only original compositions-no jazz standards or covers. Both make Chicago Sessions unique.

Running full steam ahead with his ideas, Eipers released the first Chicago Sessions album, "1, 2, 3..." by veteran Chicago bass player Larry Gray in early 2009. It was to be the first of 12 albums released on the label that year-one for each month.

The steady output consumed Eipers.

As Chicago Sessions' sole employee, he was charged with every behind-the-scenes job-ones that keep whole staffs at major (and even independent) labels busy on a daily basis. On top of engineering, producing and mixing each album, Eipers designed their covers and packaging, arranged to get CDs pressed, secured distribution in stores, established relationships with press and radio, and more.

"The individual tasks were particularly daunting," says Eipers. "I had a pretty good idea what I was getting into, but there was a lot of learning."

The hard work paid off.

Chicago Sessions became a critical darling, garnering deserved praise from both the local media and national press. The accolades continue to this day, with Levy's 2010 release, "Tonight and Tomorrow," and the Matt Nelson Trio's 2011 release "Nostalgiamaniac," earning best of the year lauds from jazz authority "Downbeat Magazine."

Critical success doesn't equal financial glory, unfortunately. Case in point: the best-selling jazz album of all time, Miles Davis' "Kind of Blue," has sold only four million copies since its release in 1959. Tweeny popper Justin Bieber's full length debut is halfway to Davis' number. And it was released just last year.

As Chicago Sessions' inaugural year came to a close with returns lower than expected, Eipers abandoned the subscription-based program and opened his catalog for purchase as individual units. The change eased demands on Eiper's costs by reducing the number of releases per year. It also allowed him to slow down and focus on both the work and meeting his artists' needs.

This is paramount to Eipers.

"(Chicago Sessions) is a corporation. It does have to succeed. We're working on (making it profitable). But I didn't get into it to get rich. We take care of our artists, promote and sell enough to make it work out."

Eipers' devotion to music extends beyond Chicago Sessions. He continues to work as a freelance engineer and producer, recording musicians at studios around Chicago and Evanston. He serves as an adjunct instructor at Columbia College Chicago, teaching two audio design and production classes each semester. And he's been a voting member of the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences (the folks behind the Grammy Awards) since 1993.

Eipers speaks fondly of all of these experiences, but his voice warms when discussing Chicago Sessions.

"What keeps me going is that I look at this stack of CDs (that I've produced) and there is just some - I'll just say - (expletive) good music here," he laughs. "I couldn't have set out to do 18 better albums than I've done so far. I hope people continue to hear them."

"That's what keeps me going."

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