2012 has seen an upsurge in the activity and ambition of UK indie jazz labels, even in tough times for CD sales. Here are some brief case studies of labels making a difference, beginning with some of the newer ones
Whirlwind Recordings Set up in the early part of last year with the release of Purpose Built by UK-based American bassist Michael Janisch, Whirlwind aims, it says, to “present the artists’ unadulterated artistic vision while exceeding industry standards in audio fidelity, graphic design, and promotional consideration." Releases have included The Immeasurable Code by Phil Robson, Smiling Organizm by Zhenya Strigalev, and Cohesion by Partikel.
Naim Jazz Just three years old the Salisbury-based imprint (previously the Naim Label) has had a good year with best selling well-received releases by the Neil Cowley Trio in The Face of Mount Molehill and Get The Blessing who launched OCDC, and both bands have also toured in the United States. The label says it is “dedicated to everything from smooth jazz right up to avant-garde", and presents its artists like an indie rock label might.
Edition Records Established in 2008 by pianist Dave Stapleton and photographer Tim Dickeson, Edition in a short space of time has been widely recognised both for its look and artistic taste. With the success of Phronesis the label had its first hit band on its hands, and successes have included the Ivo Neame Octet’s groundbreaking Yatra, and Marius Neset’s Golden Xplosion.
Basho Records Ahead of the release in 2013 of the sophomore Impossible Gentlemen release for Basho produced by Steve Rodby, this north London label, run by Christine Allen and Max Steuer since 2004, came of age when the Kit Downes Trio was nominated for a Mercury award, and the label has also been strongly associated with the early career of star pianist Gwilym Simcock. The label recently released the latest album of James Allsopp’s hugely promising band Golden Age of Steam.
Babel label A pillar of the UK jazz label community, and possibly the best known of them all, Babel was founded in the mid-1990s by former economist Oliver Weindling in London. With an unsurpassable passion for the music and a desire to develop both esoteric and the more accessible forms of jazz and improv Babel has seen critical success with Billy Jenkins, Polar Bear, Portico Quartet, Christine Tobin and trioVD. With increasing levels of output new bands Dice Factory and Indigo Kid coming on tap the creative spirit of the UK scene in the best traditions of the label.
F-ire Label The acclaimed Roller trio has spearheaded the F-ire Collective release roster this year. http://www.f-ire.com/label
Trio Drummer Clark Tracey’s label http://www.triorecords.co.uk
Emanem improv legend founded in 1974 http://www.emanemdisc.com/emanem.html
Leaf Leeds label whose artists include Polar Bear http://www.theleaflabel.com/en/index.php
Splashpoint Ian Shaw released his Fran Landesman album on this Sussex label in August http://www.splashpointmusic.com
Jellymould Huddersfield indie home to Hannes Riepler and the Magic Hat Ensemble. http://www.jellymouldjazz.net
Efpi Manchester pace-setting label with Beats and Pieces on its books. http://efpirecords.com
Phronesis pictured above
If industry pundits are right ― http://www.musicweek.com/news/read/radio-1-music-boss-guitar-music-is-coming-back/052585 ― and guitar music is to return centrestage in indiedom, thinking beyond, jazz guitar may follow suit.
The signs are there, but how will it build?
It could go retro in the hands of someone like Hannes Riepler who draws in a crowd of young players to his Tuesday Charlie Wright’s jams in Shoreditch. Or more contemporary, stimulated by a charismatic player such as Dan Messore who has started a series of Sunday gigs at the Vortex and whose band Indigo Kid joins the dots between the Iain Ballamy school of improvisers and new players such as BBC New Generation artist saxophonist Trish Clowes.
More likely, though, given the big interest in bands such as Supersilent who have been touring with John Paul Jones and play tonight at London venue the Village Underground, is the electronica side to guitar music.
There’s no finer an exemplar of this strand than Eivind Aarset whose new album Dream Logic has just been released by ECM. It’s a duo record featuring the 51-year-old guitarist with sampler Jan Bang, whose festival Punkt this year saw live performance by ambient pioneer Brian Eno.
The world where guitar synths and keyboards combine is the battleground of innovation, and other bands such as Eyes of a Blue Dog with trumpeter Rory Simmons switching to guitar and live sampling by drummer Terje Evensen coalescing with vocals to chart new territory and add to the interplay.
For nearly a decade and a half since Electronique Noire and with the Sonic Codex Orchestra Aarset has continued his pioneering work that makes each of his albums seem like a statement and stand out from the crowd.
‘The most significant jazz album to come out of Norway since Khmer’
Glacially slow and lingering Dream Logic’s 11 tracks are mostly the work of Bang and Aarset although producer Erik Honoré who recorded and mixed much of the album is co-credited on ‘Surrender’, and ‘The Beauty of Decay’.
With Aarset think the late Pete Cosey, think music from south east Asia, delivered at times by a Boss digital delay pedal, and you’re half way there with Aarset who in his youth was influenced by Jimi Hendrix, Miles Davis and Terje Rypdal. That trinity is interesting but a Venn diagram of all three does allow for the starting point that for those interested in finding Rypdal via Aarset, like say Finnish band Oddarrang, there is huge transformation possible in the air.
If jazz guitar does move centrestage it will be different with input from electronica. Retro currents can drive change, ironically, and if you’re heard the until 2012 unreleased archive album Echoes of Indiana Avenue by Wes Montgomery you’ll understand what I mean, but it’s the new generation that given the possibilities technology allows has the potential to revolutionise the music to reflect the present.
It’s the journey towards a sound in jazz no one has ever heard. Aarset is, it’s clear, an innovator of some clout, as Dream Logic his finest work to date clearly indicates. The most significant jazz album to come out of Norway since Khmer in the late-1990s.
Eivind Aarset above. Photo: ECM
If only the walls could talk: Terence Blanchard was reflecting on the many nights he has played Ronnie Scott’s over the years. Introduced to the stage minutes before by club managing director Simon Cooke who wished he could have booked him for more nights adding as a cool by-the-way on the biggest night of the metropolitan jazz year: “A girl at the bar told me to say ‘it’s the first night of the London Jazz Festival’."
Blanchard was in good spirits after the first night of this short stint the previous evening and this single set was ahead of a live radio air shot later on in the evening for the BBC. In his most telling comment to the audience Terence would say that in jazz: “The tradition is to break tradition", something the set would go some way to illuminate.
Kicking off with a two-prong attack in classic Messengers tradition alongside Tuczon tenorist and fellow road warrior Brice Winston the band shot into Eddie Cleanhead Vinson’s ‘Four’ with some fleetness of foot, Cuban pianist Fabian Almazan quickly in the zone. Blanchard’s old boss Art Blakey, would you guess have appreciated Kendrick Scott at the kit although he might have had a thing or two to say! Young Julliard student Joshua, “Smiler", Blanchard has dubbed him, Crumbly, is a worthy successor to Ben Williams now sky diving admirably with the Unity Band. The walking blues towards the end, trumpet against bass, had the bounce and wit of Jimmy Blanton.
Quick and agile at the kit H-Town man Kendrick Scott has taste to burn. On Twitter before the gig he said he was “stoked" for action and so it proved. Displaying great mallet touch as the set developed, and he found the sweet part of the cymbal time and again. Blanchard standing back from the action sometimes impassive at the back of the stand coming forward to pick up shakers later for extra percussion and to throw in some finger snaps upped the ante in some style but it was balladry rather than high octane blasting a feature here. He had a Friday feeling as he cracked jokes after the second number, introducing the band and talking a bit of politics but not much he promised although not forgetting to mention that he turned down an invitation to the Bush White House, to applause.
Blanchard is a tender player and one of the finest jazz composers alive, but here was generous with his bandstand and Winston’s tune the band is to record called ‘Time To Spare’ has a sinewy charm, while former band guitarist Lionel Loueke’s ‘Benny’s Tune’ at the end was a joy as ever.
Spilling out on to the street, and taking some 20 minutes or more to even ascend the stairs and get through the doors, the audience who filled the Vortex to capacity last night were there for Lionel Loueke, one of the biggest draws in jazz today from the new generation in a rare small club setting in the UK. Loueke began his three-week European tour, the first of two nights, the second tonight, at the Dalston club with his new trio.
There was a big turn-out of fellow musicians in the audience including such luminaries as 2012 MOBO-nominated guitarist Femi Temowo, Phil Robson of Partisans and The Immeasurable Code, and Indigo Kid’s Dan Messore. Downstairs in the bar, there was a circus-like atmosphere with violin enfant terrible Dylan Bates and friends including the extraordinarily bewiggged ‘Miss Roberts’ of Rude Mechanicals performing to the diners and drinkers. The place was heaving with, again, many musicians in the audience downstairs, including Dylan’s brother Django Bates, relaxing after a busy and highly successful year.
Lionel Loueke was playing with his new trio of the now New York-based but former UK jazz scene Nigerian bass guitarist Michael Olatuja, as steady as a rock on the fast mutating and ridiculously long metrical lines that flew effortlessly from Loueke’s guitar.
The third member of the band needs no introduction to fans of Phronesis as he appeared on the Camden Town-recorded live album Alive helping Jasper Høiby’s band scoop Jazzwise album of the year just two years ago. Mark Guiliana is about to tour with the marvelously monikered and exciting band Mehliana with (geddit?) the Bradster himself (Mr Mehldau in London on Wednesday) playing keyboards in duo along with a cupboard-full of electronics for good measure. Guiliana brings the excitement of a rhythm machine made flesh to the band, with great technical skill, metrical precision and abandon, and Loueke just lifted off. The new album Heritage not on sale on the night because of problems to do with shipping following super storm Sandy in New York, provided some choice cuts including ‘Ife’ (‘Love’), sung in Yoruba, and ‘Ouidah’ with its meditation on the slave trade a feature of the album, although the beginning of the set was dogged by some small sound problems. They didn’t last long and Loueke was just limbering up for some serious improvising, interesting pedal effects, and the style of a player whose presence has enhanced the bands of Terence Blanchard, at Ronnie Scott’s tonight incidentally, and the great Herbie Hancock due to play solo next week, in no small measure.
At the beginning of the second set ‘Tribal Dance’ written by the album’s producer Robert Glasper who wrote the memorably lilting melody while he was still a high school student, was a perfect start and the concert just built and built. Loueke has switched to steel strings rather than the nylon he used on earlier albums for this new phase of his career on Blue Note records, but his sound remains as unique as ever irrespective of the textural and technical changes. It has a humanity, warmth, jazz complexity, and above all spirit that you’ve got to hear. When his vocals and guitar combine there’s also a special dimension reminiscent of something Loueke’s great hero George Benson achieved in following his solo lines with his voice every step of the way. Maybe they’ll have to take the tables out if even more people come down tonight, as Loueke joked. A great gig: the band’s on fire.
Lionel Loueke trio last night, above. Photo: Will Harris
The London Jazz Festival, which at last begins on Friday after one of the biggest and longest trails in its 20-year history, is not so much a snapshot of jazz in the capital, more a lingeringly long wide shot of the music. Think the famous Art Kane photograph A Great Day in Harlem magnify it from its brownstone building setting in New York, populate the shot with hundreds more musicians, and let the photographer go click on the widest pavement in London, with the widest lens imaginable, and you’ll not even get close to what’s about to take place.
Under the radar and away from the big names this year who include Herbie Hancock, Sonny Rollins, Esperanza Spalding, Robert Glasper, the Brad Mehldau Trio, Jan Garbarek, Jack DeJohnette, and so many more, there are dozens of musicians, some appearing for the first time at the festival, who have significant profile in the UK or the countries they are based. You might have to put on your hiking gear and consult the fine print of the festival programme to track them down, but there’s considerable kudos in just doing that, particularly if your friends are sticking to the tried and tested and you just want to broaden your horizons that bit more.
One of the artists who falls firmly in the worth taking the trouble category is French trumpeter and flugelhorn player Stéphane Belmondo who earlier this year, just properly available here now, released his latest typically accomplished disarmingly refreshing album The Same as it Never Was Before, a neat absurdity on the title as playfully cynical as the understated but steely playing on the album. Belmondo is playing on the Barbican free stage, a platform where during the build up to a range of evening concerts you’ll discover some similar artists either too little known in this country yet to mount concerts in bigger spaces, or being promoted as the Finns are doing, to swell interest in national scenes only concerted showcase promotion can achieve. Belmondo was an important element on Jacky Terrasson’s vibrant Gouache released earlier in the autumn and in France he has a significant following. He’s with Kirk Lightsey, Sylvain Romano and the great Billy Hart on the album with all but Hart making the trip for the LJF. Billing is relative after all, but for such a distinguished name from the French scene to appear unheralded indicates the strength in depth at the festival this year. Bojan Z at Artsdepot is another top drawer act coming in among many. This year may just be the discovery show writ large.
Stéphane Belmondo above
Playing the Forge in Camden for the first time Christine Tobin chose the occasion yesterday to perform songs from her new 2012 album Sailing to Byzantium, matching the album selections with songs by Leonard Cohen, Brooklyn poet Eva Salzman, and at the end Carole King.
With the Margate-based singer’s band of pianist Liam Noble, her accompanist on Carole King songbook album Tapestry Unravelled, bassist Dave Whitford, cellist Kate Shortt, and guitarist Phil Robson, Tobin, whose latest album sets music to the poetry of WB Yeats with spoken word contributions by the great actor Gabriel Byrne (his recorded voice an evocative early presence here on ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’), was able to channel deep to the heart of the matter in her intelligent treatment of the peerless poetry of Ireland’s national poet. ‘The Second Coming’, Tobin describing it as ‘apocalypic’, was the most dramatic interpretation of the two-set concert, although one of Tobin’s great many strengths is that she relies on close study of her texts in terms of enunciation and above all timing performing the songs with a vocal range that makes use of a great deal of flexibility in terms of tone, and understated but hugely effective communicative quality. It could be said that having heard Tobin’s vocal versions of choice poems from the Yeatsian canon returning to the source has added meaning, added light and texture such is the finely judged sensitivity Tobin brought to the project. ‘In Memory of Eva Gore-Booth and Con Markiewicz’ was quite superb, and ‘Long-Legged Fly’ with lovely little syncopated touches from Shortt a strong feature of the programme dotted with delights. Tobin is also a remarkable interpreter of the songs of Leonard Cohen, and the inclusion of a few of his songs was a strong match, and I particularly enjoyed her rendition of ‘Everybody Knows’ that drew out the humour and seriousness of the lyric. Sailing to Byzantium is a quite extraordinary album, Tobin peerless and unassailable here, Yeats clearly her métier, in Cohen’s line ‘a shining artifact of the past.’ Stephen Graham
Sailing to Byzantium is on Trail Belle records
Historic jazz label Okeh is to be revived by Sony Classical, although the first new signings are still to be announced. The US label founded by Otto K. E. Heinemann, began operations in 1918 and was later owned by Columbia. Mamie Smith produced the label’s first big hit, ‘Crazy Blues’, and Okeh recording from a studio base in Chicago later in the 1920s became synonymous with what’s now regarded as classic jazz, particularly with artists such as Louis Armstrong, King Oliver, Sidney Bechet and Duke Ellington.
The label also was heavily known for its blues releases, but its name disappeared from view periodically over the years to be revived at different times, under Epic, for instance in the 1960s, recording Little Richard under the marque. More recently Sony retooled it in the 1990s as a blues label although the new initiative has jazz at its heart.
The label’s new Madrid-based A&R (artists and repertoire) executive Wulf Müller is no stranger to the UK jazz scene, and was based in London at Universal for many years. The executive, who is 57, grew up in Berlin and later studied politics and journalism at Vienna University.
At the beginning of the 1980s he became co-manager of a jazz club in Austria called Miles Smiles, a club that opened with Bill Frisell in duo with the great German bassist Eberhard Weber (known for such groundbreaking work as The Colours of Chloe and later as a member of the great Jan Garbarek Quartet).
Müller was also involved in starting a magazine called JazzLive, before going on to work as product manager for PolyGram Austria’s Import Music Service division. Later he started the Amadeo label with local Austrian jazz musicians, including releases by Karheinz Miklin, guitarist Wolfgang Muthspiel, and executive-produced artists such as alto sax star Wolfgang Puschnig, known for his work with Carla Bley, and the now sadly defunct but very influential Vienna Art Orchestra.
In 1992 Müller moved to London as international marketing director for Jazz at PolyGram International, and began the Verve Nights at a range of European summer jazz festivals including the Montreux Jazz Festival and North Sea in the Hague where it was based at that time, and he worked with leading jazz artists Joe Henderson, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Abbey Lincoln and the great singer Betty Carter.
Later as vice president of International Marketing Classics & Jazz for Universal he was responsible for international marketing for classics and jazz priorities worldwide, and signed local artists to Emarcy who he also did A&R for. Müller signed Madeleine Peyroux, Dee Dee Bridgewater, and Michael Brecker to the label, along with many other leading artists.
The label Jazzland, which he developed with Norwegian keyboards polymath Bugge Wesseltoft, is one of the labels divested by Universal under the terms of their recent takeover of EMI. Müller left Universal before the takeover and with his wife Yolanda Chalmeta founded consultancy company All-In-Music Service, and relocated to Madrid, where their company has been active working with artists such as Sergio Mendes, producing Chinese star Karen Mok with a studio session back in London, and acting as a European tour co-ordinator for Branford Marsalis, Jane Monheit, and other artists.
Sony Classical in a statement jointly issued in Berlin and New York last month announced his appointment as an exclusive jazz A&R consultant stating that Müller will be working with Sony Classical teams in both cities bringing “new and established artists to the company, overseeing product development and supporting the international marketing of the releases.”
The president of Sony Classical is quoted as saying: “Wulf is one of the most experienced and respected executives in the jazz world and I have wanted to bring him to Sony for a long time, and for his part Müller said he is “honoured and excited to be asked to start jazz activities within Sony Classical and look forward to working with the Sony teams on some of the greatest artists in today’s music world”.
On his blog Müller expands: “It will all be jazz as usual, but this time on the OKeh label, founded in 1918 and home to many jazz greats at the time – Louis Armstrong among them.
A new chapter begins for major label jazz in a fast changing jazz record industry dominated by the coming together of Universal and EMI, the custodians of Verve and Blue Note, and the ongoing migration to digital formats and the brave new world of streaming. How the other major, Warners, will respond in terms of ramping up their jazz activity in terms of new signings remains to be seen.
Stacey Kent performed new song ‘The Changing Lights’, first debuted in Liverpool earlier in her latest UK tour, written for her by distinguished novelist Kazuo Ishiguro and her husband saxophonist Jim Tomlinson last night at Ronnie Scott’s jazz club, during the singer’s latest residency at the Soho institution, which celebrated its 53rd anniversary earlier in the week.
Informing the attentive audience that she is shortly to enter the studio for her latest album to be completed some time in the spring, as this tour for her latest album Dreamer In Concert reaches its conclusion shortly, she was coming full circle in her return to Frith Street. Because last year at Ronnie Scott’s, also at Halloween time, the singer started the ball rolling by launching the album in the UK, the follow-up to her mainly French language album Raconte Moi.
Last night the stand out song from earlier album Breakfast On The Morning Tram, ‘The Ice Hotel’, another Ishiguro/Tomlinson collaboration, was a firm highlight of the first set, but ‘The Changing Lights’, is, if anything, an even stronger, more intimate number, with a certain loneliness and big city melancholia implicit in its atmosphere and lyrics.
‘Dreamer’ worked well once again surpassed by the lovely feel of ‘Quiet Nights’, while Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane’s ‘The Trolley Song’ from Meet Me In Saint Louis she does so well and has recorded in the past was accomplished, even if ‘Waters of March’ was a bit more laboured than her rendition at the club last year.
Kent was joined by Graham Harvey on piano and Rhodes and bassist Jeremy Brown, regular playing partners both, but Stephen Keogh on drums was less familiar, although the experienced Charles McPherson and Tina May sideman read his part very well and gave the drum line a certain straightahead gravitas the material needs especially as the piano was meekly miked and contemplatively performed, contributing to the nocturne-like atmosphere of both sets. Tomlinson played beautifully on tenor sax (it was almost as if we were back in 1964, the year Getz/Gilberto came out) and he also switched to guitar late in the second set, an instrument Stacey had picked up to comp softly on earlier. There was a bit of exuberance at the bar later as a fan expressed his vocal enthusiasm (satisfied minutes later by ‘Hushabye Mountain’) and besides the airing of the new song the highlight, and maybe it will make the album was ‘This Happy Madness’ (‘Estrada Branca’ the title in Portuguese as Kent explained), a Jobim song again with English lyrics by the late Gene Lees, who also wrote English lyrics to ‘Dreamer’ and ‘Quiet Nights’. Jobim recorded the song with Frank Sinatra, on the Sinatra-Jobim Sessions, and this without a shadow of a doubt stole the show only just surpassing the remarkable new song.
Stacey Kent continues at Ronnie Scott’s tonight and completes her residency tomorrow
Pictured top Stacey Kent, Kazuo Ishiguro and Jim Tomlinson