The Reservoir Story

Full Disclosure: All jazz writers fantasize about owning a jazz label. These fantasies persist even in our post-CD, download era, when the record industry as we knew it has been laid to waste. It is reasonable to speculate that, as a reader of this magazine and therefore a music junkie, you may have had an entrepreneurial record label fantasy or two of your own. For us, it should be interesting to hear from Mark Feldman, because he actually did it. In fact, he did it twice.

There is always a story behind the creation of a small indie jazz label. Usually, the story centers on one quixotic individual who is brave and foolish enough to take the plunge. In 1981, Feldman was invited by Robert E. Sunenblick to join his Uptown label as a partner. Feldman had no business background, but he was a hardcore jazz fan. He said yes.

Even in 1981, when music retailers were not yet filing for bankruptcy in droves, the owners of indie jazz labels almost always had day gigs. The Uptown partners were doctors with active medical practices, Sunenblick as an internist in Montreal, Feldman as a gastroenterologist in Kingston, New York. The two had met when they were in medical school in Lausanne, Switzerland.

Over the next few years, the doctors put out some cool LPs, like To Tadd with Love in 1982 and Look, Stop & Listen in 1983, both containing Tadd Dameron compositions and arrangements performed by Philly Joe Jones, Don Sickler, and a small big band. These two albums helped introduce a new generation of jazz fans (including the author of this article) to the great Dameron.

Feldman and Sunenblick split up in early 1986. Sunenblick kept Uptown. It became primarily an archival label. Its most notable release, in 2005, was Town Hall, New York City, June 22, 1945, by Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, which sold more than 50,000 copies.

Feldman started Reservoir Music, home of the Reservoir label. It was named for the Ashokan Reservoir, 14 miles west of Kingston, which is New York City's main water supply.


The first session Feldman produced by himself was Good People by Jed Levy, released in 1987 (LP RSR 105, available on CD as RSR CD 198).1 His first engineer was the one Uptown had used: Rudy Van Gelder, who was already legendary. Feldman went on to record about five sessions a year. Asked if it was difficult to run a record label while sustaining a busy medical practice, he says, "I suppose it was, but it became like second nature. My patients always came first. I scheduled the recordings on my days off or on weekends. I had the luxury of working with wonderful musicians. It only took an afternoon to record 60 or more minutes of music. We didn't need many second takes." The last session Feldman produced was Nightscape (RSR CD 197), by pianist Jon Mayer, in 2008. (It was released in 2010.) He remembers, "After the session, I'm driving home to Kingston, listening to a CD-R of different takes. And it just hit me: 'Nobody's buying the music anymore. I can't keep doing this.'"


From Good People to Nightscape, Feldman put out 97 albums on Reservoir. If you assume that "commercial" jazz is the jazz closest to the surface, where it is the most easily accessible, then the region of the art form in which Feldman operated is several layers below the surface. It is a layer containing straight-ahead modern acoustic jazz. It is intended for a dedicated, knowledgeable audience. It has little chance of "crossing over" into broader markets.


The musicians on Feldman's label were an intriguing mix, some famous, most not. Feldman was loyal. He loved baritone saxophonist Nick Brignola and did 10 sessions with him, resulting in 11 albums. He put out five albums by Pete Malinverni, an under-the-radar pianist of reliable excellence. Rob Schneiderman is a mathematics professor by day, little known as a pianist, but Feldman believed in him and put out 10 of his recordings. Brignola and Schneiderman alone account for over 20% of the Reservoir catalog. But if you peruse the personnel listings in that catalog, you see many important names, often in sideman roles: Kenny Barron, Tommy Flanagan, Dave Holland, Jack DeJohnette, Gary Smulyan, Benny Green, Billy Hart, Rufus Reid. The common denominator in the Reservoir roster was that it reflected Feldman's taste. He knew who could play.

Noted art critic Dave Hickey once wrote, "Painting isn't dead except as a major art. From now on, it will be a discourse of adepts, like jazz." Hickey, contemplating the contraction of painting within the visual art world, searching for an analogy, lands on the most challenged, insular art form he can think of: jazz.

As a description of the small counterculture that is the worldwide jazz community, "a discourse of adepts" is not far off. One person who would probably agree with that characterization is Feldman's accountant. Feldman says, "In the years that I produced, I never showed a profit. My accountant liked it because he could write off losses against what I made as a doctor."

It may be disheartening to learn that a highly regarded jazz label always operated at a loss, but Hickey's assumption that "a discourse of adepts" cannot be a "major" art is very much open to question. Take, for example, Hod O'Brien's Blues Alley, a three-volume set recorded in a Washington, DC, club on July 6 and 7, 2004 (RSR CD 180, 182, 187). O'Brien was a pianist who was born a little too late. By the time he came up in the late 1950s, bebop was no longer in vogue. But O'Brien once said (in an interview not long before his death in 2016), "I kept with bebop. I loved its higher rhythmic activity. Its harmonies have always felt right to me. I plan to stay with bebop until I master it."

In his three sets at Blues Alley, in a trio with bassist Ray Drummond and drummer Kenny Washington, he plays tunes from a Golden Age, including six by Tadd Dameron and four by Ellington/Strayhorn. His command of phrasing and melodic development, his advanced harmonic logic, not to mention his ass-kicking swing, reveal him as a virtuoso of his chosen idiom. O'Brien's three-volume treatise on bebop as a living language can only be regarded as major. Of course, since this is jazz, it all happened informally, in the moment, in a noisy jazz club, before a small "adept" audience.

Or take Pete Malinverni's Invisible Cities (RSR CD 192). It could go into a time capsule as a paradigm of turn-of-the–21st century small-ensemble jazz. Malinverni's quintet nails everything. None of the sidemen are household names, but they are the kind of under-recognized badasses Feldman always found: Rich Perry, Tim Hagans, Ugonna Okegwo, Tom Melito.

Feldman's label is a repository of the core jazz format: the piano trio, "the minimum complete jazz orchestra." Pianists were a Feldman specialty. The "New York Piano" series is a large piece of the Reservoir catalog.

Feldman might have made money from jazz if he had been willing to compromise quality. His packages had attractive graphics and professional liner notes. He used the best recording and mastering engineers (Rudy Van Gelder, Jim Anderson, Allan Tucker). He booked the best studios (Van Gelder in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey; Avatar in Manhattan). He paid his musicians fairly. He says, "The only way I could have substantially cut costs would have been to underpay musicians. But I always felt that, after a recording session, musicians shouldn't have to worry about next month's rent."

People liked working with Feldman, not only because he paid well. Pete Malinverni says, "The thing about Mark was, he was all about facilitating the music. He never told me what to play."

Jim Anderson, Feldman's second engineer, says, "Mark approached producing like a doctor. He always came in prepared and organized. He allowed me the freedom to make engineering decisions. And he had a very nice rapport with the musicians. I can't think of a time when there was tension in the studio."

No wonder musicians played their butts off in his sessions.

Footnote 1: Feldman brought several recordings with him from Uptown; those formed the basis of his first four releases on the Reservoir label and several subsequent ones. His first fully independent release was RSR 105.

jimtavegia's picture

I now own 7 of Pete Malinverni's piano albums and one of tour de force from Nick Brignola. I love the piano sound that Jim Anderson gets. Pete is one great pianist.

Reservoir is fast at shipping by the way. Thanks DR. Feldman.

Joe Whip's picture

Recording is fantastic. Another in a string of Jim Anderson gems. Martin reminds me a lot of Benny Green.

ikymagoo's picture

thanks for this great article, i'm fairly new to Jazz, at least outside of Miles and Coltrane, so this has come as a treasure trove of albums i need to listen to, then probably purchase, excellent stuff!

BluesDog's picture

The meticulous love and detail exerted within this article is astonishing and informative. Well Done! I'll have to try and chip away at these new (for me) frontiers.

Old Audiophile's picture

As I was reading this wonderful piece, I couldn't help but be distracted by a very familiar looking turntable behind Allan Tucker in the photographs of him in his home studio. If I'm not mistaken, that is a Phillips 212 Electronic, circa 1971, one of the best turntables ever made in its day, IMHO. I bought one in 1971 and thoroughly enjoyed it until I retired it in 2017. Just thought I'd throw that tidbit into the mix.