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Windham Hill Records Branches Out as Its Founder, Will Ackerman, Chooses a Different Path

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When he divested himself of all his Windham Hill equity, not wanting to have "one foot in and one foot out," he signed a three-year commitment not to compete with Windham Hill and looked forward to days of contemplation: chopping wood, adding rooms to his house, making his own music. That lasted a matter of weeks. "What I love is producing music," he says, "and I missed it much more than I ever thought I would." Ackerman waited out the length of his agreement by creating Gang of Seven, a CD label devoted to spoken-word recordings. He has since sold it, but the projects he did with Spalding Gray, Andrei Codrescu, Tom Bodett and others remain close to his heart. As soon as he was legally able, however, he returned to music and started Imaginary Road with Dawn Atkinson, who had been the principal producer at Windham Hill.
He signed the label to a joint venture with Polygram Classics and Jazz, mostly because of the presence of Chris Roberts, its president, who happened to have worked at a record store in Portland, Oregon, when Ackerman was peddling his music along the West Coast from a Volkswagen bus. (A merger earlier this year turned Polygram into Universal Classics Group. Roberts is now the chairman of Universal's U.S. division and, internationally, president of Universal Classics and Jazz.) He hadn't seen Roberts in the quarter-century since, but he felt comfortable working with a familiar face. "He really knows my history," Ackerman says, "and that's very important to me."
The music is less pastoral, more percussive, than his Windham Hill releases. Sitting in his studio, Ackerman choreographs each track in his mind. In the same way that he can build a new room on his house without blueprints, he can envision what he wants the music to sound like. He's after cleanliness of lines, just as in his own architecture. "I want to feel the presence in the room of everybody who's playing," he says. "I want to be able to point to exactly where I think they are." The music and the carpentry feed on each other.
While an assistant sets up the cut he wants to mix, Ackerman takes a moment to walk out the front door and around the back of his studio, where he has a workshop a level below. There, he takes an unfinished plank of wood and feeds it into a lathe. "Incredible, isn't it?" he says. "It starts off like this and comes out as smooth as that." Then he heads back upstairs to do the same for one of the cuts on Preston Reed's next release. The record business has become more corporate, and Ackerman has become less so. "What I want to do is be able to experiment wildly," he says.
He punches a CD called songs from einstein's violin by a little-known singer-songwriter named Frank Tedesso into his machine and implores a visitor to listen hard. Tedesso's from Chicago, Ackerman says, "but the record was described by someone as the first-ever use of a Martian accent. I'm as proud of it as anything I've ever done in my life." The music starts, and Tedesso's singular mix of Caribbean inflections and Irish intonation fill the room. "Margaret went all the way with Vincent," Tedesso sings. "They went to a ballgame for their honeymoon.
They had a baby girl by Christmas." It is clearly extraordinary, unusual stuff, and by most standards utterly unmarketable, but that is what makes it so compelling. Unlike the commercial suavity of Brickman, this is chewy, difficult material that requires hard work to listen to. Nevertheless, the reward is palpable. The lyrics work in much the same way that George Winston's instrumentals created winter in a listener's mind: subliminally at first, and then slowly, and then suddenly, with a flood of emotion. "There's a ghost in my future, there's a ghost in my past," Tedesso is singing. Ackerman mouths the words along with him, and his eyes are filled with tears.
Colorado-based writer Bruce Schoenfeld is a frequent contributor to Cigar Aficionado.
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