The “jazz detective” who finds lost music treasures

Producer Zev Feldman specializes in locating and releasing rare recordings by the likes of Sonny Rollins, Chet Baker and Cannonball Adderley

Zev Feldman
Music producer Zev Feldman with an unreleased Art Tatum album and a rare George Benson poster in the background; April 2024.LENIN NOLLY (Lenin Nolly/El Pais)
Iker Seisdedos

They call Zev Feldman “the jazz detective,” but he’s not out there in a trench coat and fedora, mingling with femme fatales. He’s actually an American music producer who specializes in finding unreleased historical recordings. To him, solving a case means discovering a concert recording that has been gathering dust in an archive for decades, or studio sessions that were once thought to be lost and gone forever. He’s a rare breed in the music industry, a veritable Indiana Jones who searches for the lost treasures of jazz.

Feldman shrugs off those labels and says he prefers another. “I see my work more like that of an investigative journalist. I dig up material and then piece together all the missing parts of the puzzle. When and where was it recorded? Who else was in on it besides the leader? And what’s the historical significance?” We interviewed Feldman in his Maryland home, a musical place filled with records, photographs and posters.

On April 20, Feldman launched 10 previously unreleased albums from jazz greats like Mal Waldron, Yusef Lateef, Sun Ra and Sonny Rollins. He chose this specific date because it’s Record Store Day (RSD), an annual event inaugurated in 2007 to celebrate the culture of the independently owned record store. With the renewed popularity of vinyl albums, the event has grown into a large operation that navigates supply and demand dynamics and scarcity economics, sometimes in a frustrating way.

This year, 387 recordings of various genres will be released on RSD, mostly in LP format. They can only be purchased in brick-and-mortar stores on April 20, and thereafter as long as supplies last. Fans will line up outside these stores to get their hands on coveted albums, ranging from an early version of David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust to rare finds by Jeff Buckley, Olivia Rodrigo, The Weeknd, and even three-inch singles by The Beatles.

Jazz, a genre known for its rabid fan base and dedicated collectors, has a strong presence on RSD, largely due to Feldman’s contributions. He will distribute 10 releases through his own labels (Jazz Detective and Deep Digs), Resonance Records, where he serves as co-president, as well as the Canadian Reel-to-Real label and Elemental Music in Barcelona.

Feldman’s new releases include a boxset of four albums featuring previously bootlegged recordings from Sonny Rollins’ 1959 European tour before he disappeared from the music scene and spent a year playing under New York’s Williamsburg Bridge. There’s also a long-lost album from the early 1970s by trumpeter (and in this case, also singer) Chet Baker. Cannonball Adderley is represented by recorded performances in Bordeaux and Paris, which were preserved by France’s national radio and television archive.

Feldman’s records are released in limited editions of 1,500-7,000 albums, some of them hand-numbered. They include info-filled booklets written by music experts, interviews with contemporary musicians, and previously unseen photos. They almost always sell out, even though they are not inexpensive. “Producing quality goods comes with high production costs,” said Feldman. “Isn’t a Picasso lithograph expensive?”

Bill Evans
Japanese promotional material for an unreleased Bill Evans album discovered in Germany in 2016. LENIN NOLLY (Lenin Nolly/El Pais)

How does he successfully produce and sell such a specialized and refined product in the Spotify era? “We’ve seen a bigger, enthusiastic and younger audience in recent years.” Feldman explains his approach, which could earn him a new sobriquet — the jazz accountant. “The key is to be methodical, thinking about the specific audience you’re aiming for and keeping a close eye on your budget,” he said. “Don’t overspend on the print run or get too ambitious. Modestly speaking, I think we’ve cracked the code.” The excitement over Record Store Day helps labels sell large quantities in a single day that would otherwise languish in warehouses for months or years, pushing up overhead costs. There’s also a smaller RSD event on Black Friday in November.

The golden age of the record business

Feldman notes the importance of having worked in the music industry for decades before delving into jazz archaeology. When he was just a year old, his family relocated to Silver Spring, Maryland in 1974, not far from where he resides today. “By the time I was five, I was already around records. When I went on errands with my parents, they’d let me go to the corner store if I behaved well.” The corner store where he bought his first classic rock cassettes was Joe’s Record Paradise. It’s still open and Feldman plans to spend part of Record Store Day there.

While training to be a radio announcer and working as music director at a radio station, Feldman was offered a job in New York as a sales assistant and merchandiser for a record label distributon. He reminisces about the golden age of the record business, especially during the CD boom when “physical was king”. After a few years working in the Washington, D.C. area, he moved to Los Angeles in 2005, where he lived until 2022, the year he returned to Maryland to be close to his aging parents.

He witnessed the industry’s collapse due to piracy and the rise of streaming. In 2007, he was laid off from a music industry job that had become obsolete. A connection led him to George Klabin, a sound engineer who founded the Resonance Records jazz label. Feldman began as a salesperson and transitioned to producer in 2012, debuting with successful releases of unreleased tracks by Wes Montgomery and Bill Evans.

“The Wes Montgomery project was actually my first dive into detective work. I made three trips to Indianapolis, tracked down his relatives, and with a music professor’s assistance, we identified the other musicians playing with Montgomery.” Bill Evans has almost become an obsession for Feldman, who has added 10 new albums to the Evans discography, including a lost studio album from the late sixties recorded in Germany. “Finding a studio album is like coming across a rare bird, so exotic, right? But in jazz, there’s just something about those live recordings that really draw you in.”

Shortly after releasing the Montgomery and Evans albums, Feldman got in touch with Barcelona producer Jordi Soley, who suggested a collaboration. This year’s RSD will be a milestone in their partnership: seven out of the 10 albums are from their collaboration. Four of them are discoveries from Soley and his partner Carlos Agustín Calembert’s exploration of European archives. “They’re two of the most generous people I’ve ever met,” said Feldman. “We make a great team,” agreed Soley. “He’s quite demanding and a perfectionist. To us, he’s our go-to guy in the United States, a place that’s totally different from Europe and Japan, with its own rules that can lead to lawsuits and expensive litigation if you slip up on copyright issues. His contagious enthusiasm makes him great at working with widows and descendants of the musicians. Plus, he’s skilled at dealing with living artists like Sonny Rollins, with whom he’s developed a strong bond. Also Ahmad Jamal, before he passed away.”

Zev Feldman
Tape recordings in Zev Feldman's home office; April 2024.LENIN NOLLY (Lenin Nolly/El Pais)

Feldman scored another success with Jamal a couple of years ago when they rescued tapes from the pianist’s time at the Penthouse Club in Seattle. The club owner recorded musicians to promote local concerts on radio, which fans have loved. Another valuable source is the now-defunct Left Bank Jazz Society in Baltimore. In Feldman’s home office, next to his three Downbeat awards for Producer of the Year, are tapes of Left Bank Jazz Society recordings that he’s preparing for future release. He asked not to reveal the handwritten names on the tapes.

As our conversation ends, we ask the big question. What’s jazz Holy Grail? What mythical recording do you hope to find someday? Feldman says there are two: the 1961 concert where Wes Montgomery played with John Coltrane at the Monterey Jazz Festival. It happened, but no one is sure if the performance was recorded. And any vestiges of the times where Larry Young and John Coltrane jammed. “Everyone’s on the hunt for these two treasures,” Feldman said. “Everyone.”

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