Have you noticed ? People who find jazz and are caught up in its magic often find themselves wanting to give something back. Tim Dunn, President of Rufus Records – the small Sydney based label dubbed ‘The Adventurous Label’ by the Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD – is one such person. When Dunn started Rufus Records in the early nineties, it was in direct response to the music he was hearing for the first time – moving, personal, intelligent music. Years on, Rufus Records is still a one-man show, with a catalogue of which Dunn is justifiably proud. And it’s still very much a labour of love (not about the money). Miriam Zolin caught up with the mild-mannered Dunn over a glass of the red stuff to talk about what possessed him to start the label that is now recognised at home and abroad for its quality and distinctive Australian sounds.
Miriam Zolin: How do you choose the music you release?
Tim Dunn: Well I have the luxury of having no musical training, which on the one hand makes me nervous but on the other hand allows me to just follow what I like. And obviously I try and support that with some ideas about whether I feel there’s an emotional impact in the music, whether it’s intelligent, for various reasons.
I have my own backyard kind of ways of working out why I think the music is good but there have been times over the years, where I’d been sent a tape and I wasn’t sure if it was really bad or really really good! [laughs] Sometimes I have to ask myself ‘Is that minimal or is just that there is nothing there?’ Primarily, I find that you have to make a very simple judgement – ‘if it doesn’t affect me in any way, then why bother’?
By and large, I found that all of the sixty or so CDs that I have released on the label have enthused me – I feel I can get behind them, and feel personal about them. And they’re not always adventurous. For example, one of my favourite albums is Graeme Norris’s Pentatomic – it’s a sound that’s kind of hard bop, West coast and some other elements. It’s lyrical and just really nicely done. I think it’s beautiful. And Bob Bertles is a great player, who works in an established idiom – once again not pushing any boundaries.
MZ: Do you have a vision for the label – a roadmap?
TD: Early on I did, roughly, but it was totally unrealistic. However I did feel that there was something distinctive about Australian players – it might be something as simple as that they were more easy-going than overseas artists, but there was something there that was different and I wanted to capture that.
MZ: Do you still feel that?
TD: Yes, I do. I mean Bernie [McGann] ‘s playing gets to great intensity and there’s also a wonderful lyricism there or a hard driving edge or whatever it might be, but no matter what, behind it there is something loose, something more easy-going… And I know that to be true of Bernie as a person as well.
MZ: You know many of the musicians who record with you quite well. How important are those relationships in your decisions to release?
TD: It was always important to me to support musicians in this way, with a label. I believed in what they were doing and wanted to get behind it. And because I believed in what I was doing, I was able to turn a blind eye, over the years, to how much money I was losing. [laughs] When I had a job I didn’t really care. And even when I didn’t have a job, I felt it was important in the prevailing political climate, to make the statement that I reject the Government’s attitude to the Arts. I’m really quite stubborn when I decide to do something. So, actually I think there is a range of uncoordinated things there that contribute.
MZ: When did you start being interested in this sort of music?
TD: Not long before the label, actually. I moved to Paddington [a suburb in Sydney] after being away for three years and there were some people there I knew – Alistair Spence, Adam Simmonds and some others. They were in a band called Monica and the Moochers and Alistair used to invite me along to gigs. In those days the band included Mike Bukovsky, James Greening, also Bernie McGann for a while. And that was really my first exposure. Years ago I had been given a Stephan Grapelli album with Yehudi Menuhin – and I must have heard other jazz. I knew names, of course, like Ella Fitzgerald and so forth but I really knew nothing about it. I was more involved in classical music and rock and blues. So Alistair had just started with Wanderlust and Clarion Fracture Zone had just started up and I went to some of those gigs and just had an immediate response, without knowing anything about it.
MZ: You say on the website that it was a Wanderlust gig that inspired you to start the label…
TD: Yes, after a Wanderlust gig I asked Mike [Bukovsky] whether he had ever thought about recording. That was the first time I had actually formulated the question. He gave me some figures of how much it would cost to get a recording together, which turned out to be far too low, but they were figures I felt I could manage. In the end the real costs were only about double what we thought they would be – it was never going to cost as much as a rock record. I didn’t release that recording, but then Clarion Fracture Zone came to me with an album they’d recorded. We went ahead with that one[Zones on Parade, CFZ’s second CD]. But that was still just one release – I couldn’t really call it a label at that point. The Mighty Reapers used to play at the Woollahra Hotel which was about 50 metres from where I lived, and you could get in for free on Sunday nights. I had already heard them supporting BB King and really enjoyed their sound. They had done a recording but hadn’t released it yet – hadn’t even got around to finishing it – so I did that one too. Then one night I couldn’t sleep and I realised that was two CDs I was going to have released – it seemed like it was turning into a label. I had the name Rufus already. Rufus was the name of a cat I’d had. My brother, who is an architect, designed the logo. I suppose it sort of happened step by step.
MZ: You’ve done it on your own from the start?
TD: Yes, I’ve resisted getting involved with other people. Other people tell you what to do and I didn’t want to release recordings I didn’t like. I’ve released things I had a lesser response to and I’ve released things that I wouldn’t release now, but there was nobody telling me ‘You have to do this or that’.
MZ: So you were trying to avoid compromising?
TD: [laughs] No, actually I was just being stubborn. I’m used to doing what I want. I couldn’t imagine releasing something just to make money. That’s never been a reason to release music on the label. And I don’t want to spend my life working with people I have no respect for, basically. Life’s too short and there’s too much at stake. I’m just not going to do that.
MZ: What does the future hold?
TD: Well, I’ve been studying Ancient History and I’ve developed an interest in archeology, which are taking up my time at the moment. That said, there are a few Rufus Records projects I really want to do in the future. Another Bernie McGann release is on the cards and a solo [piano] CD with Colin Hopkins that I’m looking forward to. With solo piano releases, I like the process of giving the musician maybe the germ of an idea, and an album cover as an idea but without being fascist about it. Just seeing where that goes – I enjoy that process without being prescriptive.
MZ: The Dave Brewer covers are a striking aspect of the label.
TD: Yes, that’s Dave Brewer the guitarist with the Mighty Reapers and also The catholics. There are about fifteen CDs in the catalogue with his artwork on the cover. Nobody is under any obligation to use his artwork for their cover of course. But there’s something textural and warm about his painting – a great sense of colour and I think it’s a nice mix with the music.
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MZ: How would you describe the music you release on the label, without reverting the Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD description ‘The Adventurous Label’?
TD: Well actually, I like to think of myself as a conservative non-conformist. I would probably say that about the label as well. I’m not musically trained and I don’t know all the ins and outs of music. I just respond to the music and I find there’s a sense of immediacy about most of it – obviously some more than others. Maybe it’s an adventure in terms of the fact that I’m someone who doesn’t know much about business either- who just invests lots of money [laughs]… There’s no great system about it. It probably reflects my own bower-bird nature where I see a nice shiny thing over here and then an attractive blue thing over there and I collect them all. [pause] I suppose in the end it’s one person’s response to a musical scene in Australia – or Sydney in particular – that’s pretty rich and diverse.
MZ: Are there any projects that particularly stand out for you as positive experiences?
TD: I’m really proud of the Paul MacNamara solo album Conversations. Once, in the church at Paddo [Paddington] Paul just walked in and started playing the piano while he was waiting for someone. It was so romantic, really fantastic. That was years ago and since then I’d always had that side of Paul in my mind. He’s very quiet and doesn’t project a lot and there’s so much in him – I wanted to capture some of that on a record. That last song on the album “My foolish heart” is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever heard, and yet it doesn’t drip with sentiment. That was one of the CDs I released when I was literally broke and I remember saying ‘stuff it, this is something I want to do’, and did it anyway.
I’m proud of the Tim Stevens CD, and all the Bernie McGann CDs. Oh, and Margie Evans. I’m proud of that. She’d been at the Byron Bay Blues Festival and she’d got wet and I walked into the studio on the day we were to record, and she had totally lost her voice [does barely audible imitation of Margie Evans with no voice]. I thought we were stuffed. But she was fabulous. She was having herbal teas and it was all done in about three hours. Occasionally, maybe two or three times, there was a second take, but mostly it was done on first take because with Margie, she’s making such a powerful emotional statement. She was in Australia, so the opportunity was there, and I’m down by a lot on that album, but I don’t care.
For new releases, catalogue information, quotes and reviews, see the Rufus Records Website: www.rufusrecords.com.au
30 June 2003