Today I’d like to shine a spotlight on the Cologne-based ava imprint, a label run by rising star Damiano Von Erckert. While the label evidently excels because of its music, I have to admit that I was first attracted to the label due to its aesthetic. A vein of nostalgia runs through each of ava’s releases, drawing influence from the sounds, sights, music and films of the 70s, 80s and 90s. These references are especially evident in the label’s record covers: photos and titles borrowed from films (Reservoir Dogs, say, or Fight Club). It’s clear that for Von Erckert, ava is a labour of love, each record handmade and issued as a limited release (the cover of his debut collaborative album even featured real feathers on the cover).

The music itself is a refreshing blend of styles which, despite its obvious nostalgia for music past, manages to sound distinctly modern – one could never mistake ava’s output for lazy throwback. Many of the releases start with a core house template but incorporate elements of soul, funk, jazz and hip hop, threaded together with warmth and an eye for killer grooves. Motor City Drum Ensemble would be an obvious touchstone; but the ava stable are more adventurous, straying further from the standard house template.

So who are ava’s key players? The first call has to be von Erckert himself, whose particularly impressive releases have marked some of the label’s finest moments to date. After receiving rejections from a series of labels for his promos, von Erckert decided to set up ava and offered its first solo release in the form of 2011’s I Think We Agree, The Past Is Over. The EP’s highlight came in the form of Housem, a glorious slice of filter-disco shot through with swooning diva samples and an irresistible 4/4 groove (for those who missed the vinyl, a remastered version will be available as a WEB on his forthcoming album). Von Erckert most prominently stepped out with this year’s mini-LP Mr. Pink, What Have You Been Smokin’, a collaboration with local beatsmith Tito Wun. The release is a delight from start to finish, taking the form of a woozy lover’s mixtape which blends soul, hip hop and house sounds with a surprising level of cohesion. The album also showed von Erckert’s versatility as he nimbly stepped from the emotive strains of Leave Uuuto the upbeat funk workout of The Dude Loop, a track fortified by a tough house backbone. Nor should collaborator Tito Wun’s offerings be ignored, the superb The Way U Do It showing an equally talented producer who could recontextualise dusty funk samples with an unerring hit rate.

Besides von Erckert,  a couple of producers have stood out proud on ava’s roster. Funkycan’s excellently-titled EP, We Were Raised To Believe That Someday We Were All Gonna Have Great Beards, showed a dynamic producer with a specialty in deeper material. Nowhere was this clearer than on the stunning CGN – GZT, a deceptively simple number in which the core loop was all that was needed, a sunken groove layered with deep, melancholy melodics which don’t get old no matter how many times you hit repeat (I can speak as something of an authority on this point.) Attention should also be paid to the superb von Erckert / Funkycan collaboration Symphonie of a Brother, the highlight of ava’s first release, a blisteringly soulful groove laden with soaring strings and a striking vocal sample championing the pen over the sword:

I said, “Arm me, send me on a mission. I’m ready to kill whitey right now’…This brother opens his desk, and he pulls out – he reaches real low, and I say back to my boy ‘he’s gonna give me a big gun, you see how far down he’s reaching in the desk’ – and he pulls out a stack of books. And I said, ‘excuse me brother, you said you were gonna arm me. And he says, ‘excuse me young brother, I just did’.

The other artist so far granted a solo release on ava is Murat Tepeli, perhaps best known for his collaborative work with Panorama Bar’s Prosumer. On the Fee Fi Foe Funk For Me EP, Tepeli unleashed a pair of raw house grooves, tougher than anything on ava to date but still settling neatly into the label’s style. FFFFUNK and Forever recall Tepeli’s best solo releases to date (which are, by my estimation, Work It and Workinstrugglin), yet the release’s undoubted highlight was Prosumer’s ‘Hold Me Touch Me’ remix of Forever, a dangerous slice of late-nite house where a venomous piano stab reigns supreme.

ava has been going from strength to strength since its inception, but a particularly strong showing in 2013 should help catapult the label into the limelight it deserves. Particular attention should be paid to von Erckert’s first album-proper, LOVE BASED MUSIC, scheduled for release in September. For my money it’s the label’s best release to date, combining all of the label’s interests in an unstoppable package (with more disco flavours than ever before courtesy of some great live singers).

In a musical landscape overcrowded by labels constantly looking for the ‘next big thing’ regardless of style, it’s satisfying to see an imprint so confident of its visual and sonic aesthetic, for whom each release expands and explores the ava sound while remaining loyal to the label’s well-conceived style. The stable’s core group of producers collaborate and remix each others’ tunes, giving the impression of a label family whose warmth and sense of fun translate well into their music (indeed, look at Damiano’s tongue-in-cheek trailer for his forthcoming album).  For that reason they’re more than worth championing and sharing, not just to draw deserved attention to a superb imprint, but because we need as many labels like ava as we can get.

Essential ava tracks:
Funkycan: CGN – GZT
 Damiano Von Erckert: Housem
 Damiano Von Erckert: The Dude Loop
Damiano Von Erckert feat. Georgia Anne Muldrow: Hollywood