Now's the time

Wynton Marsalis sideman Wessell Anderson is Leaning House's best hope to make some noise

Anderson says he loved watching Elliott produce, the way he helped Edwards come up with a list of songs to perform, suggesting and coaxing without every insisting. Anderson saw that Elliott was a pure jazz fan, a cheerleader and ringleader wrapped in the body of a kid from Dallas who wants to turn his little label into a version of Blue Note, circa 1956.

"We were talking like musical buddies," Anderson recalls. "With Mark, it's like talking to another musician. It's like somebody cool, somebody you can talk to. So jokingly, I told them I would like to join the label. And he said, 'Yeah?' and I said, 'Yeah.' I went home, and I said, 'They ain't gonna call me. They're just starting out.' Then they called me two days later, and Mark said, 'Are you serious?' And we started talking from there.

"I asked Mark to send me the records they had released. I heard everything, and it let me know what the record label's direction was. I heard Marchel and Earl, and I thought, 'They got some cats who can play.' I asked Donald, 'How do you feel about them?' and he said, 'Yeah, definitely.' I liked the way Mark and Keith worked together. It was like the way Rudy Van Gelder and Francis Wolff and the people at Blue Note worked together. They let the artist do what they needed to do without getting in the way."

To tell the truth, Wessell Anderson does not need Elliott and Foerster--not as much as they need him. The man known as Wess to his friends and "Warmdaddy" to his fans, the man who began playing piano when he was 13 and switched to saxophone when he first heard Charlie Parker, does not need to associate his name with a tiny jazz label operating out of a house off Lower Greenville that slants so noticeably, you couldn't even level it with a bulldozer. He does not need to lend his reputation (and risk his credibility) to a record label run by two men whose idea of a bet is giving two-to-one odds on who will go broke first. Wessell Anderson has friends in very high places.

But during its five years of existence, Leaning House has released seven of the finest jazz albums of the 1990s. Labels such as Verve or even Blue Note would be hard-pressed to top Marchel's Mode or Earl Harvin Trio/Quartet or Shelley Carroll with Members of the Duke Ellington Orchestra. The roster of artists who are either signed to the label (for short-term contracts, the mark of true indie sincerity) or have recorded for Leaning House is remarkable: Marchel Ivery's two discs feature no less than former John Coltrane pianist Cedar Walton and organist Joey DeFrancesco, who appeared on Miles Davis' 1989 Amandla; Fred Sanders' 1997 album East of Vilbig features Arts Magnet grad Roy Hargrove among its grooves; and Edwards' recently released In the Vernacular features Anderson and guitarist Mark Whitfield, who has six discs on Warner Bros. and Verve to his credit, and appears all over the Kansas City soundtrack.

Yet the label has existed almost despite itself, releasing album after album while the money trickles in, enough to pay the bills and finance the next project--if Elliott and Foerster are lucky, that is. That Leaning House is even still standing after all these years is no astonishing task: When major-label jazz releases make up a tiny, almost insignificant percentage of all records sold in this country each year, an indie such as Leaning House should have long ago collapsed and been razed to make way for a parking lot.

The biggest-seller on the label is Ivery's Marchel's Mode; it has moved about 2,500 copies since its release in 1995. Edwards' disc has sold less than half that, about 1,000 copies, though it has only been in stores since May. Such sales figures will hardly turn Leaning House into a mansion on the hill. Already, the label's distributor, the Portland-based Allegro, has considered getting out of its deal with Leaning House, which would jeopardize its already tenuous future. Elliott readily admits that Allegro will keep a close watch on how Anderson's record sells. Yet Leaning House hangs on because of Elliott and Foerster's tenacity and the roster's remarkable talent.

"I don't have necessarily wild expectations about Wess' record," Elliott says. "I definitely think it's got the potential to sell more than anything else on the label, but this is a meaningful record on a lot of levels. It was the hardest to make from the very beginning to the very end--it has not been a smooth ride. It's the biggest artist we've signed. It's at a time when our relationship with our distributor is critical. So it's pretty important, no doubt about it. But I feel like we're getting to a difficult position, because there are some other artists out there we could possibly sign now who are of a similar caliber to Wess, but we don't have the money to do it. And believe it or not, the roster is getting to the point where it's getting difficult to manage. You're either going to take it to the next level or not. We need money--money brings a lot of other things."

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