Matt Jorgensen, Evan Woodle, and John Bishop photo by Daniel Sheehan
BY PAUL RAUCH
The last time John Bishop and Matt Jorgensen appeared on the cover of this magazine, the city of Seattle, and the music scene within it, were very different places. It was September of 2007, and Origin Records was celebrating its tenth anniversary. As creators and principles of Origin, the two were juggling the responsibilities of being professional musicians with those of the label, including staging the Ballard Jazz Festival in support of label and local artists.
The times leading up to that anniversary were times of rapid change in terms of how music reached its audience. Until October of 2006, the city still had the majority of the traditional marketing infrastructure in place, epitomized by Tower Records. Music was largely distributed to listeners by CD or iTunes. In the late nineties, when Origin began, the cost of producing a CD had dropped dramatically and technology was making production tasks simpler and more efficient. One might assume, then, that Bishop, and his one-time percussion student Jorgensen, were seeing the cosmic tumblers clicking into place just as indie labels like Origin were becoming a thing. That assumption would be wrong. They were, in fact, just doing for themselves and other musicians what others would not—record and distribute their music. It was no different than drumming up gigs and organizing events like the Ballard Festival—the idea was to make stuff happen, plain and simple.
“The root of it was that we just wanted to play music. No one would do things for us, so we had to do everything to enable us to play music,” recalls Jorgensen. In that regard, little has changed over Origin’s twenty-six years, a quarter century that has seen more than eight hundred albums released on Origin and its counterpart, OA2 Records. There is no definitive plan, there is only doing what needs to be done. “It’s always been do what you do, then it goes where it goes,” says Bishop, matter-of-factly.
Bishop’s entrepreneurial prowess is guided by his career as an internationally acclaimed drummer. He first met a fifteen-year-old Jorgensen as his percussion instructor. By the time they started Origin, Bishop was twenty years into a career that is highlighted by tours and recording dates with New Stories, Scenes, Sonny Fortune, Jessica Williams, Chano Domínguez, and others that now approach thirty-five years in the making. He is notably innovative in the trio format with his groundbreaking work in the rubato-style trio led by pianist Hal Galper. His new release Antwerp, a trio session with Belgian mates Piet Verbist (bass) and Bram Weijters (piano), is fast climbing national radio play charts.
Jorgensen is the author of eleven albums as a leader or co-leader. In addition to being a first call jazz drummer, his renown for composition can be appreciated daily during broadcasts on KCTS 9 and KUOW. His 2010 release Tattooed by Passion: Music Inspired by the Paintings of Dale Chisman received national acclaim and is a Northwest classic. Jorgensen’s stage and studio credits include dates with Gary Bartz, Peter Bernstein, George Colligan, and Vincent Herring. He is currently writing and performing music for an album release in 2024. His formidable music tech and website skills, along with a natural entrepreneurial bent, blended well with Bishop’s skillset from the beginning, intensifying upon his return from ten years in New York in 2002.
Over twenty-six years, Origin/OA2 has become a highly regarded label in the industry, regularly scoring high in DownBeat magazine’s annual polls. While the label began mostly featuring Pacific Northwest artists, its survivability would rely on international growth, the inevitable result of Bishop and Jorgensen’s penchant for building community through relationships—in essence, a form of effective networking built on their real-life experiences as musicians. Over the past year, six of forty releases were made by Seattle artists.
“It’s the artists that define the label,” says Bishop, alluding to the impressive Origin roster. From the beginning, his career as a musician and subsequent international standing developed friendships that formed the foundation of Origin’s artistic excellence.
“What I like about our thing is that it’s rooted in musicians needing to get to the next step, to the next thing—and not get sidetracked by irrelevant things. Keep your focus on what’s important, which is relationships. You center on people, your everyday life—choose who you’re going to be hanging with and playing with.”
Prior to the pandemic shutdown in 2020, Evan Woodle joined the Origin team as what Bishop describes as a “doer of all things.” Woodle accompanied the Origin contingent to New York just prior to the shutdown and dove into data-based functions of the label when the darkness of the pandemic hit full force. With live music performances put on hold, musicians found ways to isolate and record, keeping the label busy in the process. Woodle, also a former Bishop student and a noted drummer in his own right, jumped in to do some of the heavy lifting. He continues to be a valuable asset and team member going forward.
Attending various jazz conferences around the globe would be beneficial to the label’s visibility and reputation, but, in the end, those friendships built from the ground up by the music itself prevailed. Origin’s reputation grew swiftly. The work done aside from the actual recording and manufacturing of a record set them apart. The artistic excellence of the recordings, the impressive roster of artists, even Bishop’s unique graphic art that graces the album covers spoke to the Origin mystique. That solid reputation has allowed Origin artists to receive ample radio airplay. Visibility in industry-standard publications like DownBeat have added to the label’s ability to avoid digital obscurity, an inevitable downside to independent releases that rely on publicists with little or no ties to the international jazz community. What Origin does for artists, in that regard alone, has become more and more valuable as the modern world, in effect, becomes smaller and smaller. January’s releases are an indicator of this reality. “January is Vienna, Israel, and Seattle,” says Bishop, alluding to the first releases of 2024 that include next generation Seattle artists Jun Iida and Martin Budde.
While streaming services and the corporate takeover of the greater music industry has changed the focus of what a recording actually means to a musician’s career, the work of Origin Records and its more than three hundred and eighty artists remains a template for success. In Jorgensen’s case, teaching students at Shoreline College about the ins and outs of being a professional musician in current times comes off like teaching Origin Records 101. With less space to receive a review locally and nationally, their work has become that much more valuable to artists seeking international visibility and a place in a growing community. In the end, it’s still about making things happen, doing what needs to be done.
“It’s networking, but it’s not. It’s just doing what you do. How do you have a career? You go out, and you start doing stuff,” says Jorgensen. “We’re musicians first, members of the community first. I do like the fact that we don’t have a plan.”