Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



(b 9 April 1942, Lessen, West Prussia; d 18 February 2018, Silver Springs MD) Composer, arranger, pianist, producer, label boss. His birthplace had changed hands between Germany and Poland several times over the centuries; it was Polish after 1920, German again under Hitler, and is now called Łasin, once again Polish.

Stadler's great-grandmother, Josephine Amann-Weinlich, led a piano trio in Vienna in 1867, which grew into the Wiener Daamen-Orchester, touring the USA as the Vienna Lady Orchestra, with 22 players, appearing at Steinway Hall in New York City in 1871, then in vaudeville houses and beer gardens, and setting off a fad for all-women orchestras. Stadler studied piano and composition in Hamburg, and emigrated to New York in 1965. His first recorded work was an arrangement of Duke Ellington's 'Main Stem', the tune reconceived for a modern-jazz octet on a James Moody album called Blues & Other Colors (Milestone, 1969).

Stadler brought a classical composer's methods to jazz, allowing room for improvised solos but asking for specific things from the players. 'The Fugue #2' had been written in 1964; two takes were recorded in 1966 but not then issued: this adapted the fugue as Bach knew it but with flexibility for the soloists. In Stadler's music (as in the music of Fats Waller, Duke Ellington and Charles Mingus), the players have done some of the best work of their careers, such as trumpeter Jimmy Owens's impassioned work on 'Fugue'. Two takes of 'Love In The Middle Of The Air' were recorded in 1973: this is a tour-de-force duet by vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater and bassist Reggie Workman, one take of 16 minutes and the other over 20, in which they exhaust all the emotional possibilities of a short poem by Lenore Kandel.

More of Stadler's compositions and arrangements include 'Three Problems', 'Heidi', 'U.C.S.' and 'All Tones', recorded in 1971 by a quartet, and 'Pointed' and 'No Exercise' made in 1973 by a sextet, all with Stadler on piano. Russ Freeman's 'Bea's Flat' and Stadler's 'Clusterity' were arranged in 1966 and recorded in 1974 by The Big Band of North German Radio, which on this occasion was a sextet including such European stars as Manfred Schoof and Albert Mangelsdorff.

Three versions for piano solo of 'Three Problems' were recorded in 1974 by classically trained Joshua Pierce, and 'Jazz Alchemy: Six Pieces for Trumpet, Bass and Drums' were set down in 1975. 'Moving Toward You' was written in 1975 and recorded the next year; takes included a duet of guitar and drums and a solo guitar version. 'Three Problems' was revisited in 1988: two duo versions were recorded by Marilyn Crispell and Reggie Workman.

Most of these recordings have been collected in albums first on Tomato, and then remastered in later editions on Stadler's Labor label: Brains on Fire (1973, 2012), Jazz Alchemy (1976, 2000) Retrospection (1989, 2016), and Tribute To Bird And Monk (1978, 2011). The latest edition of Brains on Fire is a 2-CD set with added tracks, even more fun than the earlier one. Today's edition of Jazz Alchemy includes not only that piece, but all the versions of 'Three Problems', the eleven tracks on the CD shuffled in a thoughtful listening order.

Stadler's masterpiece is undoubtedly Tribute to Bird and Monk (1978), originally on two LPs, then a two-CD set on Tomato, and now on a generous single CD on Labor, sounding better than ever. Three tunes each by Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk are re-composed, or as Howard Mandel put it in the note for the latest edition, used to 'create new art from indestructible aspects of established creations'. The English critic Max Harrison often pointed out that the great jazz creators have often been theme-writers rather than composers, leaving behind tunes that have infinite possibilities; reviewing a British reissue of Tribute to Bird and Monk in 1990 Harrison went on to point out that jazz had developed so quickly over the decades that very few practitioners had followed through to discover what each innovation might mean, and this is what Stadler did in these pieces. His arrangement of Bird's 'Air Conditioning', for example, has a statement of the theme at the beginning and again at the end of the almost 13 minutes, but a polytonal dismantling and re-creation of the tune has meanwhile taken place, so that when the tune returns it is almost a revelation. Similarly, the block chords of Monk's 'Ba-lue Bolivar Ba-lues-are' use all 12 pitches (shades of Schönberg!) and the arrangement makes full use of this richness. Among the other riches of the album is a six-minute bass solo on Monk's 'Mysterioso' by Reggie Workman, proving once and for all that bass solos don't have to put us to sleep.

Throughout the album the players are given precise instructions as to piches and rhythms and how to interact with one another, yet also plenty of room to follow these instructions in their own way, reminding us again of Mingus, who made similar demands on his players. The producer of the sessions was Michael Cuscuna, who said that the recording was challenging but rewarding for everyone, and that trumpeter Thad Jones would modestly claim to be tired or past his best and then pick up his horn and dazzle everybody. A week later, noted Harrison, on an album called Groovin' High on Muse with his brother Hank Jones, Thad had taken a page from Stadler's book (generously acknowledged in the Muse album's notes) arranging Bird's 'Anthropology' to take advantage of the tune's bitonality, 'whose jagged ensemble statement leads to a striking series of exchanges between Thad Jones and Charlie Rouse.'

Tribute to Bird and Monk received rave reviews, but to quote Harrison once more, 'tumbled into the well of uncomprehending silence that awaits so many real advances.' Come to that, Harrison may well have agreed, it may have been too good for the label 'jazz'.

We do not know how many scraps Stadler may still have had in his knapsack, but his own exciting music-making gave way to making a living as a producer and a label executive. One of his first albums as a producer was vocalist Jay Clayton's debut album All-Out (1980, on Anima) featuring Jane Ira Bloom on soprano sax, who also plays alto on three tracks, including the title track, written by Stadler. Tomato Records came and went during the difficult period of the changeover from vinyl to compact discs; during Stadler's second stint with Tomato (1987-91) he oversaw the reissue of over 65 albums. Meanwhile he produced concerts in New York City; he collaborated on recordings of the music of John Cage and Philip Glass (a recording of Glass's opera Einstein on the Beach was originally on Tomato); he traveled to North Korea twice hoping to take part in a project involving the composer Isang Yun with musicians from both North and South Korea, but it never happened. He was more successful in Albania in 2000, recording two albums of music by that country's Aleksandër Peçi, the first time a foreign record company had ever visited Albania. He has worked for Arabesque, Zoho, WERGO, Arcadia and several Concord labels; his international associations and his work in folk, blues, and almost every other genre are too many to list here.

In 1973 he had founded his own Labor Records, one of those little labels beloved of true music lovers whose crossover catalog was of consistently high quality. It includes not only reissues of his own recordings, but the complete keyboard music of Bach as recorded by the Brazilian pianist João Carlos Martins on 19 volumes; and a series of tributes to composers, each featuring a different pianist, the 8th and latest being Schnittke and his Ghosts, played by Georgian-born Angelina Gadeliya, now on the piano faculty at Colorado College. The music of Peçi, Eric Salzman, Meredith Monk, Louisiana Red and many more were represented in the Labor catalog, currently about 90 issues, nowadays distributed by Naxos. But since Stadler's passing, the label may be foundering; blues collections by Louisiana Red, John Lee Hooker, Brownie McGhee, Roosevelt Sykes etc have apparently been remaindered, selling for absurd prices in mid-2020 at Berkshire Record Outlet.

The label's strapline is a definition of the word 'labor': it is both a noun, meaning physical or mental exertion; work; toil; a task; the birth process; and a verb, meaning to exert oneself; to take pains; to work at; to till; to cultivate. Heiner Stadler did all this for decades.