Sure, he’s a music industry veteran with tons of connections as well as a record producer who runs his own label. But if you’re looking to Jim Pugh to make you into the next Kanye or Tay Tay, you’re going to be disappointed. He’ll tell you so himself.
“To anybody who really wants to become a big deal—look, I’m 63 years old,” he says. “I have no idea how you become a big deal anymore.”
From his perch as the executive director of the non-profit Little Village Foundation, Pugh is pretty far from the levers of the star-making machinery. But he is committed to making the world a more musically interesting place by finding the jewels everyone else seems to be overlooking.
On Aug. 1, Pugh and Little Village will be dropping no fewer than seven new recordings from California musicians who have little in common other than their defiance of conventional genre definitions.
“This is more (about) shining a light on smaller things,” says Pugh, who spent years on the road as a keyboard player for Robert Cray and other artists. “It’s not with any intention to become some kind of massive viral national sensation. I don’t know how to do that.”
Instead, Little Village is focusing on idiosyncratic artists who are, according to Pugh, “not even looking to be found.” They include a Latina soul singer who renders Bob Dylan to Spanish, a Russian Jewish chanteuse who records with her parents, and an Indian-born guitarist who joyfully marries Bollywood ballads to Chicago blues.
The seven new releases count for almost all the product that Little Village will release this year. The idea behind the mass release is to create the kind of buzz that the individual artists may not be able to create on their own.
“I relate to the emotional commonality in all of them,” says Pugh. That commonality even goes beyond language. Bluesman Aki Kumar sings many of his songs in his native tongue, Hindi. “I don’t have to speak the language to be moved by Mariachi Mestizo,” says Pugh, pointing to the group from the Central Valley town of Delano that’s also part of the Little Village release slate.
Pugh will be showcasing his roster with a date at Berkeley’s Freight & Salvage on Wednesday, Aug. 1, the recordings’ release date. Included in the show will be San Jose guitarist Kumar, members of Mariachi Mestizo, soul and gospel artist Marcel Smith, Bay Area R&B vocalist Marina Crouse, Russian-American violinist Ada Pasternak, blues phenom Whitney Shay, and singer-songwriter Maurice Tani.
“We’re going to have seven distinct groups of people coming together to play individually and collectively, and the hope is that both performers and audiences come away with an overwhelming feeling of empathy and understanding,” said Pugh. “It’s small. It’s not going to be on the cover of Rolling Stone or headlining at Madison Square Garden. But for me, the combination of musical diversity and helping people, that’s a real passion.”
“That’s Jim,” said Kumar, who released his first album with Pugh and producer Kid Andersen on the Little Village label in 2016. “He has a very open mind. He’s been in the music business a long time and he’s played with so many great people. But he approaches music as music. He doesn’t have all those genre fixations.”
Kumar, 38, is exactly the kind of hybrid that Little Village is building its business model around. A native of India, Kumar moved to the U.S. 20 years ago and began a passionate deep-dive love affair with Chicago-style electric blues. His new release, Hindi Man Blues, artfully melds blues with the hugely popular music of Bollywood that formed the soundtrack of his youth in India. It combines Bollywood covers with a few originals, a new take on Herbie Hancock’s Watermelon Man and even a cheeky satirical dig at Donald Trump. In other words, it’s an uncompromising vision of a sui generis artist, a hallmark of the Little Village approach.
“I know that this has never been done before,” said Kumar. “And it’s great to work with a team that’s excited about it. They want to do it. Even if the whole world hated every single song, I think we’d still be putting out this album.”
Little Village Showcase
Aug 1, 7pm, $20+
Freight & Salvage, Berkeley