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

A Mecca for Oscar Peterson, George Duke, the Singers Unlimited, and a host of talented young European discoveries: MPS. 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 (Black Forest)) Records. 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.

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, who was working at the nearby Südwestfunk (Southwest Broadcasting) station.

Alongside the pianists, violinists are the second most prominent instrumental group featured. Old masters Stéphane Grappelli and bluesman Don “Sugarcane” Harris as well as young lions Jean-Luc Ponty and Didier Lockwood are some of the violinists who were gathered together under the MPS insignia. Such international jazz greats as Freddie Hubbard and Jim Hall enriched the catalogue. The big bands of Dizzy Gillespie and Count Basie, Peter Herbolzheimer’s Rhythm Combination and Brass, as well as the popular jazz orchestras of Kurt Edelhagen and Erwin Lehn became regulars on the MPS label. The human voice also rose to new heights in Villingen: with Singers Unlimited, Brunner-Schwer sounded out how many vocal tracks he could overlay, as the famous jingle that signified MPS’s second international imprint came into being during the multi-track session: the “Most Perfect Sound”.

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”. Clarinetist Tony Scott hooked up with Balinese musicians, pianist Irene Schweizer with musicians from India, and pianist George Grunz got together with Arabic players. Then there are the legendary collaborations of US alto saxophonist John Handy and Indian sarod player Ali Akbar Khan as well as the recordings of Brazilian guitarist 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 history. 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 four 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. As in the past, the repertoire is broad and deep, with such stellar artists as pianist Johannes Mössinger and the oriental jazz formation FisFüz as well as big bands.

Alongside all of this MPS is experiencing the greatest revival in its history. With its extensive reissue projects, Edel:Kultur is proud to once again make the treasure-trove of the MPS catalogue available on a wider basis. MPS Records’ 21st century renaissance will include recordings in the highest fidelity as well as top-quality LP and CD versions. Selected titles will also be available as analog tapes. Furthermore, it will be the first time in the history of the label that the entire jazz catalogue will be available in digital form. The analog as well as the digital editions of these exciting, timeless chapters in jazz will be accompanied by online documentation. Thus, we are bringing together several musical generations to celebrate what the Grove Dictionary of Jazz states is “the largest and most diverse catalogue in Europe.”