Welcome to the Black Forest: MPS through the decades – a short history of the label

For some MPS might feel like a treasure trove that had to be dug up from the twilights of Germany’s Black Forest. With diversity, courage, and quality as the trademarks of the label, founder Hans Georg Brunner-Schwer achieved world-wide renown as Germany’s first jazz label. A Mecca for international jazz stars like Oscar Peterson, George Duke, The Singers Unlimited and a host of talented young European discoveries. Situated in Villingen, in Germany’s Black Forest region, for some two decades MPS Records and studios wrote pioneering jazz history through its high-level recording technique and unmistakable aesthetic. Today the “most perfect sound made in the Black Forest” continues to light up the ears of analogue fans worldwide. A historical sketch.

The label’s actual birth was in 1968, but it had a colorful prelude that entails the famous initials HGBS. As co-owner of the electronics manufacturer SABA, Industrialist Hans Georg Brunner-Schwer (HGBS) was not only an ardent audio engineer; he was also an amateur pianist who was crazy about music. In 1958 he built a recording studio above the living room in his villa. It contained the most sophisticated audio equipment available at that time. When Oscar Peterson came to Zurich to perform a concert in 1961, Brunner-Schwer lured Peterson to his villa, and the first house concert in the Black Forest. The Canadian was so impressed by HGBS’s recording of the concert (“I never heard myself like this before…”), that he decided to come back every year for a another living room session. Meanwhile, starting in 1963 HGBS began to produce records under the label name SABA. The recordings included pianists Wolfgang Dauner and Horst Jankowski. George Duke also appeared as guest for the first time in 1966. When Brunner-Schwer left SABA in 1968, he founded MPS (Musik Produktion Schwarzwald trans: Black Forest Music Productions). The Peterson recordings were the first release under the new name – this became possible since Peterson had finished his contract with Verve. It was the beginning of an illustrious catalogue which contained over 500 releases by 1982.

MPS founder HGBS and Oscar Peterson in the MPS Studio

The studio eventually moved to another building on the factory grounds on Richthofenstrasse, a stone’s throw from the family villa. HGBS continued to commit himself to recording pianists, from Eugen Cicero through George Shearing on to Monty Alexander. But beyond that, MPS evolved a vault of recordings filled with treasures from virtually every musical direction. The recording no longer took place solely in Villingen; there were now New York studio sessions and live recordings at the Berlin Jazz Festival. Close teamwork with such masterful sound engineers as Willi Fruth and Rolph Donner guaranteed that the demand for a high-quality sound-aesthetic would be met, and many new talents were brought into the MPS fold through the mediations of the reigning high priest of jazz, Joachim-Ernst Berendt.

Alongside the pianists, blowers and violinists are the prominent instrumental groups featured. Trumpet players like Don Ellis, Clark Terry and Freddie Hubbard or saxophonist Joe Henderson -playing with Cick Corea on "Mirror, Mirror" - are prominent figures on the label. The old masters Stéphane Grappelli and bluesman Don “Sugarcane” Harris, as well as young lions Jean-Luc Ponty and Didier Lockwood were just some of the violinists who gathered together under the MPS insignia. Geroge Duke and Alphonse Mouzon, pioneers of the Jazz-Fusion and further international jazz greats as Joe Pass, John Taylor, Mark Murphy and Jim Hall enriched the catalogue. And beside the big band recordings of Dizzy Gillespie and Count Basie further life recordings including Ella Fitzgerald and Sun Ra are part of the MPS experience. The human voice also rose to new heights in Villingen: with The Singers Unlimited, Brunner-Schwer sounded out the possibilities of vocal track overlays. It was at a The Singers Unlimited multi-track session that the famous MPS slogan “the most perfect sound” came into being, signifying the company’s special status on the international stage.

MPS continued to be a pioneer as it explored around jazz’s jagged edges. What began to work its way into the mainstream as “World Music” in the late 1980’s had already found a home in the 1960’s in the MPS recording series “Jazz Meets the World” by Joachim-Ernst Berendt. Clarinetist Tony Scott hooked up with Balinese musicians, pianist Irene Schweizer with musicians from India, and pianist George Gruntz got together with Arabic players. Then there are the legendary collaborations between US alto saxophonist John Handy and Indian sarod player Ali Akbar Khan, and the stylish recordings of Brazilian guitarist legend Baden Powell. Vibraphonist-marimba player Dave Pike became a favorite of MPS, enriching the label’s groovy side with his Indian-influenced tonalities.

There has always been a prominent place for young German musicians within the European section of the MPS catalogue, and it continues to make an impression on the evolution of German jazz. MPS was instrumental in putting such performers as Volker Kriegel, Wolfgang Dauner, and the two Kühn brothers, Joachim and Rolf, on the international map. Albert Mangelsdorff and Gunter Hampel, two distinctive performers out of the Avant-garde and free music milieu, found their space on the MPS label alongside the likes of internationally renowned musicians Archie Shepp and Cecil Taylor. Eventually, MPS devoted itself to classical music. A Bösendorfer Grand Imperial, the “Rolls Royce of concert grands”, was bought for pianist Friedrich Gulda’s use. The piano still stands resolutely in place in the studio, along with the original red markings signifying the ideal positions for the recording mikes.

Catch-word “today”: In 1983 Brunner-Schwer sold most of the rights to the MPS recordings to Polygram. Brunner-Schwer devoted himself to his new label, HGBS Music Production, primarily overseeing classical recordings. A number of MPS recordings have been released in CD format by Polygram/Universal, and more recently by the Promising Music record label. After the death of HGBS in 2004, the tape machines in Villingen were quiet for a short time. Over the last years Brunner-Schwer’s son Matthias and long-time jazz-crazed colleague Friedhelm Schulz have revived this unique Black Forest institution with new recordings, many of them analog.

In 2014, ten years after Brunner-Schwer’s death, the MPS catalogue found a new home, the Germany company Edel. Edel began updating the MPS history, forging ahead in new directions. The MPS catalogue’s vast treasure was once again made accessible to the public, as, LP-by-LP, all the albums were digitalized, and specially chosen albums were re-released in the highest audio fidelity on vinyl and tape. Parallel to this, after a 30-year pause, MPS has begun writing a new chapter with a wide stylistic spectrum of brand-new releases that e.g. include clarinet legend Rolf Kühn, soul songstress China Moses, Brazilian mandolinist Hamilton de Hollanda, Berlin-based media darling Malakoff Kowalski, charismatic jazz singer Malia and the German expressive jazz trio around pianist Julia Kadel. After almost four decades the Julia Kadel Trio were the first MPS artists to record in the historic studio again. MPS has already received three prestigious ECHO awards (German Grammy equivalent) for its exciting, open-ended repertoire of new recordings.

And so the story of MPS continues as we keep on digging and making available treasures from the past as well as finding the gems that will shape the jazz history of tomorrow.