“One of the greatest drummers to come out of Chicago”: The George Fludas Organ Quartet from International Phonograph (part 1 of 2)

According to jazz critic John Corbett, “George Fludas is one of the greatest drummers ever to come out of Chicago, an impeccable swinger with imagination, class, moxie, and a clear sense of the full span of jazz tradition.” So, while there are several titles in International Phonograph Inc’s (IPI) collection that I’d been coveting, this is the one I went for first. R2R can be a pricey addiction, so we have to pace ourselves! 

On that note, the good news with International Phonograph is that they offer two levels of master copy at two different price points. A direct copy of the master tape (where available), the highest quality copy possible, is priced at US$250; then there’s also the option of a production copy, copied from the direct master copy and hence is ‘two removed’ from the original master, which costs $150.  All tapes are ¼” two-track, 15ips, IEC (CCIR), on 10.5 inch reels, at 250 nanowebers. I went for the $250 direct master copy.

A quick intro to International Phonograph 

Chicago-based label International Phonograph Inc was started in 1981 “with the sole intention of recording and producing great jazz, at the highest sound quality, while supporting deserving musicians who forward this original American art form,” says the website. At the helm is Jonathan Horwich who has been recording, producing and mastering jazz and classical music since the mid-1960s – and who’s worked with such greats as Stan Getz, Benny Goodman, Ravi Shankar and Chick Corea. Through IPI, Horwich produces one-to-one master tape copies – some from newly recorded performances and others from his collection of jazz analogue masters. “Primary to any of these tapes is the quality of music, which always takes precedence over any other consideration or reason for publication,” he notes. “These tapes are being made available to the public so these singular moments in jazz can be heard in their highest quality form.”

The company is also passionate about unearthing classic jazz performances that are no longer available to the public and reissuing them on vinyl and CD as well as on open-reel tape.

Almost all of the recordings that IPI makes in-house use custom tape recorders and microphones.  The result is an organic, realistic sound with real ‘presence’. Combine this with the high level of musicianship in these performances and you have the promise of an extremely musically rich experience.   

IPI’s catalogue is pretty extensive with more than 50 titles at present. You may not have heard of every artist in the catalogue but you can be sure they’re all at the top of their game. Chicago is a city where jazz has always been very much alive and kicking. There’s plenty of live jazz in the clubs (or there was, before the pandemic, and of course there will be again), with new talent continually emerging amid a spirit of innovation and experimentation. IPI is right in the thick of this fertile jazz scene and, with Horwich’s knowledge and experience, it’s perfectly placed to capture some real winners. 

The George Fludas Organ Quartet

Drummer George Fludas

So, here we have George Fludas on drums, Pete Benson on Hammond B3 organ, Scott Burns on tenor saxophone and Kyle Asche on guitar. I hadn’t heard of the band, but this snippet on IPI’s website grabbed me –

“The organ has a storied history in jazz, yet is often played with repeated patterns and clichés – but not here. Although the playing in these performances is grounded in traditional blues, it is original and creative. Further enhancing the enjoyment, only the highest quality equipment was used including (and unusually in the case of an organ) a coincident pair of Neumann KM 254’s on organ, a custom KMF stereo tube microphone on drums, a Neumann U-67 on tenor saxophone, and a Telefunken 251e on guitar.”

A bit more research reveals that Fludas has been a prominent member of Chicago’s jazz scene for some 30 years (he’s 54 years old at the time of writing). Inspired by his father, who was also a drummer, he’s been a member of many premier jazz groups and played with a stellar line-up of musicians. Still based in Chicago, he performs regularly at numerous jazz venues across the USA as well as many international jazz festivals. You can read a 2016 interview with him by Chicago Jazz Magazine here.

A conversation with IPI’s Jonathan Horwich reveals that this is one of his (Jonathan’s) more recent recordings. It’s also a tape that he feels is very typical of IPI’s output, and so it seemed to tick all the boxes – a good choice for a review, as well as being a tape that appealed to me personally.

Introductions done, let’s get listening

Listening in progress

As I said, I’d never heard of George Fludas so I’m in virgin territory here as I load up the tape and take my seat. But, following my conversation with Jonathan Horwich, I’m pretty excited about the fact that this is very typical of what he is doing with IPI: assembling a small tight band of musicians in a studio and capturing what they produce in the live moment. I say ‘capturing’ because that’s the feeling I immediately get. Right away I can hear that the set-up here is a situation in which the band can relax, be themselves, explore the music, let it flow, let it breathe, let it live. The contrast from the usual studio scenario is palpable, ‘usual’ referring to a more structured production in which the producer might hire and fire session men to fulfil a role in a dreamed-of construct. In such cases, the whole just doesn’t seem to unfold and flow in a natural way, there’s a certain rigidity. 

As I listen, I begin to think of Jonathan Horwich in a similar vein to Rudy Van Gelder, the late American recording engineer who specialized in jazz and who has been referred to as “the man that made jazz sound so hip”. Now I might well be talking out of my proverbial you-know-what here, I’m no jazz aficionado so bear in mind, reader, that these are just personal impressions that come to my rambling mind… To me, Rudy Van Gelder was a magnificent jazz artist in his own right. His role as I see it wasn’t just in producing the music as such, but I’d see him as being instrumental (literally) in creating it. He created the stage, the atmosphere, the setting, the space to allow the musicians to explore their own artistry. And that in itself is an artform.

If I might digress for a second…

My love of Rudy Van Gelder comes from my love of the great Miles Davis, an all-time favourite. I particularly love Davis’ Prestige years, just before he signed with Columbia, so prior to the famous Kind Of Blue era and after the scene-setting Birth of the Cool. The Prestige period was one in which I felt his music to be at its most free, open, expansive and expressive. Those Prestige albums just ‘are’ for me; they’re not trying or pushing, there’s no good or bad, they all ‘just are’. Just music happening. Don’t get me wrong, I love the Columbia period too, but I feel Davis was flitting between one idea and another at that stage and working with the excellent Gil Evans and Teo Macero, so while those ideas and performances were still great, somehow I’m left feeling that each was a production put together by the team. In contrast, the Prestige years feel to me like he was just letting the music flow. That said, the last four Prestige albums were actually compiled from just two days’ sessions with Rudy Van Gelder at the controls – a pretty speedy flow, then, and yet they sound so fresh, free, open and uncontrived. 

Why, you might ask, am I harping on about Rudy Van Gelder and Prestige era Davis when I’m supposed to be reviewing Jonathan Horwich and the George Fludas Organ Quartet? Well, because many of you will be familiar with Van Gelder and Davis and so this is my way of trying to explain what this IPI recording sounds and feels like to me: masterful artists, being in a space that allows them to feel free, to relax, to do their thing, and for the music to breathe and grow and flourish.

Let me give you a quick track-by-track taster and then in part 2 I’ll share some insights from Horwich about the recording session.

Track-by-track: a taster

Track 1, Funky Fox: Perfect title by the way! The sax leaps out. It’s warm and rich, not harsh. This is really great, funky-but-chilled music. The Hammond organ sounds superb and the guitar too, each instrument is ‘out there’… there’s an incredible sense of them existing in reality, and the ‘mix’ is superb.

Track 2, My Little Brown Book: Now the sax is aching, sensual, caressing and the drums so gentle. There are the lightest touches on the organ. The slow, gentle, beautiful guitar sounds like cream or butter, as does the organ now I think about it. God, this is music to make love to. Just fabulous. 

Track 3, Minor League: A lovely little noodley number. The guitar takes the lead in a very laid back way, trading places and taking turns with the sax along the way.

Track 4, Sunday in New York: A real easy-osey kind of groove. It starts with a similar feel to the previous track, with a noodling guitar and sax, but then the organ takes the lead, casually, refreshingly and ever so groovily transporting me into the late 50s / early 60s, to the height of the ‘cool jazz’ period which this is not just reminiscent of, it absolutely is of, it’s just dripping with cool!

Track 5, Night Mist Blues: As the title suggests, this one is cool, dark and spacious. The organ and guitar take the lead here; I say the lead but they’re more coaxing along than leading, gently caressing or nudging the tune along. This is a very bluesy kind of jazz. 

The whole album is beautifully conceived and played, and I’m saying ‘played’ rather than ‘performed’ because I get the feeling here that these guys are playing, they’re genuinely enjoying themselves, there’s a freedom and a slipping into the vibe. Nothing’s forced or ‘put on’. 

Summing up

Since I didn’t know the George Fludas Organ Quartet before acquiring this tape, I didn’t expect it to become one of my most-played tapes – but it has! On reflection, it’s easily one of the best value tapes in my collection in terms of ‘price per play’. I have the same relationship with it that I do with Jethro Tull’s This Was, which isn’t my favourite Jethro Tull album as such but it does seem to go on the turntable more frequently than any of the others. It’s more bluesy and it requires less active input from the listener, it’s music that you just put on and enjoy – not ‘easy listening’ as a genre but easy and pleasurable to listen to. So it is with the George Fludas Organ Quartet tape. It just suits the moment every time I put it on. It’s nothing like the same sort of music as Tull of course, what I’m saying is that both albums seem to suit almost any mood. 

When I took the reel-to-reel rambler to Hi-Fi Show Live in 2019, Jonathan Horwich very kindly sent me two of IPI’s demo tapes to play. These are essentially compilations of IPI’s more recent recordings and they give you a good picture of how his studio sounds, how he likes to arrange his mics and musicians so that the performers can not just perform, but breathe, feel, interact and fully express themselves. Each and every recording has something of this. It leaves the listener feeling exalted, like they’ve just been to a really good performance of, say, a top-of-their-form jazz musician playing in a smoky jazz bar, like one of those real ‘finds’ on your travels, rather than a top-name act that’s been pumped-up and polished and ends up sounding a tad sterile.

In short, if you’re considering an IPI tape, I’d say go for it. Dive in. Don’t hold back. I’d very surprised indeed if you were disappointed. 


…and there’s more

IPI’s Jonathan Horwich has very kindly shared some notes and photographs from the album’s recording session, giving a real insight into the day and his processes.

Check them out in part 2!