Saturday, December 08, 2007

Ronnie Scott's - a sad demise, but not the end of jazz

The latest news about Ronnie Scott's is that Leo Green, the "Artistic Director", has resigned in a fit of pique, having a real go at the club's management for ignorance. What makes it so sad is how the one of the world's great jazz clubs, with nearly 50 years of history, is going into free fall, compared to what things were like just a couple of years ago.
In part, it's because of the style in which it was refurbished and hopes. Putting on an image that was decidedly "retro" and building on the phenomenon of Parky jazz, as epitomised by Jamie Cullum's success a few years back. This is now no longer as fashionable any more. And certainly it's proving impossible to get people to pay the prices required to make this venue viable for the sort of artists involved. There's an unholy alliance against the club of the jazz lovers, disappointed by the programme and the prices, and the accountants who probably think the programme too "jazzy".
It would be great if Ronnie's doesn't die in jazz terms. We have had too many London venues close recently - the Spitz and Pizza On The Park to name but two, while the Pizza Express programme is patchy. (Who wants THREE weeks of Acoustic Alchemy in December? However, watch out for a F-IRE festival and Dutch jazz festival in January!) Less jazz at Ronnies really dilutes the options to hear jazz in London in the short term at least. However, extending a point that Howard Mandel makes about the changing New York venue scene, rents mean that jazz may well be impossible to run in the centre of town and it's going to be more and more in places a little bit away, such as 606 or the Vortex, where consistent jazz will take place. Other West End venues will dabble in good quality jazz, such as the newly reopened Marquee which intends to have jazz on Sunday evenings. Though, sad to say, the Museum of Garden History, which has put on some great gigs over the past two years, has also finally closed its jazz programming
Jazz music, and its proponents, know how to survive, and find the wherewithall to do so. Just because Ronnie Scott's is failing, or that Jamie Cullum's last album sold a fraction of the previous, doesn't signify its failure. Look at the scene and energy in the colleges, and at the small venues. I am really excited by the programme at the Vortex over coming weeks (Andy Sheppard, John Taylor, David Torn, Dave Liebman in January) and the release schedule for Babel in early 2008 (Outhouse, Bourne Davis Kane, Paula Rae Gibson, Big Air), not forgetting the runaway success of Portico Quartet over recent weeks.
Of course, that doesn't necessarily bode well for certain bigger scale collaborations in the future, but that's something for another posting...

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Portico Quartet on BBC London TV tonight

The Portico Quartet will be on BBC London news on BBC 1 tonight at 6.30 p.m. as part of the coverage of the London Jazz Festival. They played outside National Theatre earlier today and Will Gresford, the new hunky face of London jazz (and manager of the Vortex) was also interviewed.
I feel really proud to be associated with the sort of publicity that the Vortex has achieved this week, along with the opportunities given to the band.
Meanwhile, the Guardian has just published 1000 albums to hear before you die. There are 4 on Babel - Acoustic Ladyland's Last Chance Disco, Polar Bear's Held On The Tips Of Fingers, Billy Jenkins' Scratches of Spain and Christine Tobin's Your Draw The Line. I am amazed and flattered to have been associated with so many albums on such a list as it covers everything from Spice Girls to Beatles and Rokia Traore with all points between.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Live gigs - on the up? Hmm

With the London Jazz Festival it's been great to get some good articles about the Vortex in both Time Out and the Evening Standard. Certainly we have had great audiences over recent weeks at the club, not just during the festival (where we have had 5 sold out gigs in a row so far) but also before, with The Necks and Evan Parker/Barry Guy/Paul Lytton last week.
But I have also found it saddening to talk to some musicians who are telling me that it is getting hard to get gigs or tours for some of their slightly larger line-ups. Certainly a decade ago there was a touring circuit of perhaps 7 or 8 venues which could take such gigs, and funding more easily available. Meanwhile the record company could assist in giving a bit of an extra fillip through some publicity and having the CDs available for sale at the gigs.
Now, it is harder. More competition for gigs from a range of incredible musicians (not so bad in itself) but the venues are not there to that degree any more. It's great to celebrate the Vortex, but Ronnie Scott's is moving towards less and less innovative jazz (an oxymoron?), The Spitz has closed and there are no guarantees of anything anywhere.
I actually think that part of the problem is that the record industry is no longer willing or able to provide the lubricant or incentive any more. Bands would play for free or cheaply with the chance of a recording ahead, or indeed the possibilility of some sort of record deal. No longer. The deals offered are, when they come, less generous and often indeed rely on earning from live gigs. The causal link is going in the opposite direction to previously.
I am concerned that this could easily mean that venues which already were offering little to musicians, such as the indie pub circuit, could dry up completely.
However, on the other hand, we have the chance to hope that there will be more and more return to a focus on quality rather than quantity, though it's difficult to identify that quality from the number of demos that are received. Venues will have to become cannier and more imaginative in getting their music out. For example, the London Jazz Festival has a strong media link with its support from BBC Radio 3, while at The Vortex is taking advantage of its name and close links with Babel (i.e. yours truly) to start its own label. The Portico Quartet effect on the club has been dramatic. It has meant that we could have a more than sold out venue yesterday for the band and the audience was then exposed to the driving free improv of the Gannets.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

The changing shape of recorded music

This is going to be a bit of an ongoing post, as my thoughts clarify. But I am giving a lot of thought as to how recorded music is going to get through to people over the next few years. Changes are definitely afoot, as we move to a world where you can not just get "physical" product but also via download.
For the CD it's what they get in addition to the small silver disc. For the download it's still what quality they get and how the tracks link together that remain a major problem. As well as how people pay for them.
On the way that they look. For the past 20 years, we have had CDs try to emulate in small size the look of vinyl. There was a wonderful period of around 30 years - when LPs first arrived to their replacement by CDs - when artists could have a field day, designing covers which were around 13 inches by 13 inches, in order to make an impact. The cool covers of Blue Note, the pop artists, and everyone could have a great time. Not all were successful. (Selwyn has a great time with his monthly art failures for Jazzwise.) But they were a great opportunity.
CDs were developed as a data transmission format with digitised sound. First, people thought that they could shrink the artwork. But we don't have magnifying glasses and put brochures in the jewel case (developed as a means of protecting the silver disc). Then we have had all sorts of other digipaks and so on.
Shops loved them, as they could put in more CDs per square metre. We record companies loved them, as they are much cheaper to ship than vinyl.
The public put up with them, but up to a point, because the moment that digital download began, they went for it. Even if the sound quality was rubbish, they were of course free, courtesy of Napster.
More soon.....

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Babel download site now active

The Babel Label now has its own download site! Music is available as high quality (320Kbps) mp3. A larger proportion of the money comes to us than via Itunes and so it means that we can keep the prices down, distribute more to the musicians per track and reinvest.
Of course, given the efforts that musicians make to produce top quality recordings and packaging, it's a bit of an approximation of the "real thing", as Billy Jenkins has described. "Music has become impotent". Nevertheless, it is essential at least to get such music out in this form.
There are a few intriguing benefits still. First, you can hear samples of all tracks lasting a minute, giving a better flavour of what's to come. Also, we can be really flexible about the timing of what tracks go up, for how long and getting up less widely available music. (A few albums such as those by Steve Arguelles and some of Billy's where I am short of physical stock are up there.) For example, the new Portico Quartet arrived yesterday afternoon and I have already put it on the site!
The full catalogue should be up within the two weeks. Already about half is there. The constraint is time. (It takes around 2 hours to get a complete album up.)
More thoughts about it as time goes on.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Punk jazz 2

I forgot to mention that I have actually got involved with proper punk and jazz! Penny Rimbaud from Crass, has recorded his version of Howl for Babel, How?. I know from talking to Penny, Bron (Eve Libertine) and Gee Vaucher (who has designed a lot of Babel sleeves by now), that they feel that jazz musicians are those who indeed continue the spirit of punk. They are avid attenders of the likes of Partisans and Christine Tobin. So, while it may not be necessarily right to think that "punk jazz" per se is actually new, to highlight the approach is spot on. And certainly with venues like Ronnie Scotts and major labels such as Universal (in the UK) making "jazz" into something quite historic and retro, to have to pick a name to remind people of the music's freshness is absolutely right.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Punk jazz

This weeks' Jazz on 3 had a feature about so-called "Punk Jazz" which is used to describe bands such as Polar Bear, Acoustic Ladyland, Fraud and Led Bib. In the end it highlighted that the phrase was a shorthand used to give it a bit of a boost for the confused public so as not to confuse it with more retro styles. Especially as each band has a different route through the music.
I am quite chuffed that such a feature takes place. Since two common elements are that they all have released their "seminal" albums on Babel and reached the public view from those releases. And the Vortex has been a key venue which has helped nurture them and bring them to a wider public. I am proud to be associated with both and to have invested quite substantially in this music.
It's all a bit surprising sometimes that it all picks up like that. Especially as I spend hours sitting in my little office wondering how anyone is going to buy this stuff and how I can get my investment back. (Latest example. When I did actually go into the new Alternative Music Distribution shop on Archway Road, Tony McLoughlin spent 5 minutes telling me that he is consciously trying to keep jazz in there to a minimum as it won't sell.)
They mention how these bands have got public attention and certainly it is great that people like Paul Morley have been behind these bands. He was suggesting that it is time for a "punk jazz" group to win the Mercury Prize. Well, at least Polar Bear got nominated.However, none of the other bands have, even though I have entered their albums. This year, with Led Bib and Fraud entered, the judges went for Basquiat Strings, certainly not from this style, though Ben Davis is part of the Fire Collective. Meanwhile, in the year that Polar Bear and Acoustic Ladyland were nominated for best album in the BBC Awards, the prize went to Jim Tomlinson and Stacy Kent, while with James Allsopp nominated for a BBC award for Rising Star, the prize went to the overtly backward looking Simon Spillett.
So there is still a fear of this music in the mainstream of jazz and music.
Also, don't forget the importance of the foundation on which the bands have built. The "Partisans generation" - members of Partisans itself, Christine Tobin, Liam Noble et al. who have slogged away for years when jazz was in a wilderness in this country. They still don't get the recognition they deserve. Partisans on Friday at the Vortex was killing, with Steve Swallow and Adam Nussbaum sitting open mouthed in the audience. (I'll be putting up a track of theirs from the gig soon.)
By the way you can still listen back to the programme till next Friday on the BBC web site. Go to it here and follow the links on the Listen Again button.
A live session by Phil Robson will prove on Jazz Line Up next week will no doubt show to the wide public that hasn't yet heard him or bought his albums on Babel (hint, hint) that he is an important link....

Friday, September 28, 2007

Archway Road - the new Charing Cross Road for jazz?

Archway Road seems to be where it's all at nowadays. Gone are the days when it was just getting ready to be widened into an 8 lane highway. And I only knew it as where I would go to the underground station, or for the public library on Shepherd's Hill.
First came Jacksons Lane Arts Centre. I remember seeing John Surman there around 1992 or so. Billy Jenkins also did a remarkable gig with a double big band from Middlesex University playing alternate notes.
The gigs died down there a bit. But then came Mark Wastell's Sound 323, where Babel releases are generally too mainstream. And now there's the Red Hedgehog for live music and the new Alternative Music Distribution shop. Since they follow on from the start of thejazz and a really successful Portico Quartet gig for Time Out yesterday, we could be on to something.
I'm going to check out the new shop tomorrow....

Monday, September 24, 2007

"Bailey Street" outside the Vortex

Hackney Council is to rename the street between Boleyn Road and Gillett Square, which passes in front of the Vortex, after iconic improvising guitar legend Derek Bailey. There is a wonderful job in the council that assesses this. Derek was a long-standing resident of Hackney Downs and performed regularly at the Vortex. It is great that the club remains aware of the history of the music in the UK.
I heard him a few times, both at Company Weeks that he organised at the Place, and at small venues such as the Vortex.
He has a reputation that extends way beyond our shores, with John Zorn and others being big fans.
There will be a naming ceremony at some stage soon, so keep your eyes peeled.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Phil Robson at the Vortex tonight

An exciting collaboration, commissioned for Derby Jazz Week 2007, featuring all new music by guitarist
PHIL ROBSON written for string quartet and jazz trio.With influences ranging from Ornette
to Oumou Sangare this is a heady cocktail with groove at the heart.
The band repeats their success ahead of going into the studio,
and a forthcoming performance at the London Jazz Festival. It includes
Austrian jazz musician of the year Peter Herbert, Jenny May-Logan and Emma Smith of
Mercury-nominatedBasquiat Strings and Partisans comrade Gene Calderazzo.
Phil Robson (guitar), Peter Herbert (double bass), Kate Shortt (cello), Naomi Fairhurst (viola), Jenny May-Logan and Emma Smith (violins) and Gene Calderazzo(drums).

‘This inspired crossover is a real achievement and should go down among the
year's jazz landmarks' (John Fordham – The Guardian).
'An auspicious evening. ****' (Jack Massarik - Evening Standard)
Vortex, Gillett Square, London N16
Doors 8 p.m. Performance 9 p.m.
 020 7254 4097
Book online at  http://www.wegottickets.com/event/21140

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Joe Zawinul

Sad to hear about the death of Joe Zawinul. I feel that he should also be marked as one of the great world musicians, how he managed to fuse African and jazz in one of the best ways of anyone. How he managed to harness the likes of Manolo Badrena, Richard Bona and of course Jaco Pastorius with the master of saxophone Wayne Shorter.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Richard Cook

I have just heard that journalist Richard Cook has died of cancer. Hardly reached the age of 50, and an important advocate for jazz. The Wire at the end of the 80s, and his radio show on BBC GLR both acted for me as ways in which I developed my knowledge of jazz and got sucked in myself. If it weren't for the Penguin Guide to Jazz and other writing, then the state of knowledge of jazz today would be all the less. He was always sympathetic to what Babel was about, and for that I'm flattered. Indeed he contributed to the start of Babel through discussions that I had with him about the possibility of Billy Jenkins being released on Verve. The album that would have resulted, Suburbia, came out in the end on Babel. Billy has written a tribute from the musician viewpoint on his web site. He was nervous about releasing albums about South East London and suburbia!
There's a nice interview with him on Allaboutjazz.com with a positive enthusiasm for this music.
"I still hear exciting new music in what I would continue call the idiom of jazz every day. It's become fashionable to describe jazz as being `over', that other musics are fresher and more exciting, that hip hop is the new jazz, Wynton Marsalis has killed everything, blah, blah, blah....these are judgments from people who don't do their homework, I'm afraid."

Thursday, August 02, 2007

New Vortex record label

The Vortex is setting up a new record label as an imprint of Babel. The first artist signed is the Portico Quartet. The album, "Knee Deep In The North Sea" will be out in November. It's a nice backwards combination of the label and the live side. There's more of a partnership element involved and I am sure that the Vortex can benefit in terms of its name recognition from the band. They are great guys, busking every week outside the National Theatre and remind me of a cross between Penguin Cafe Orchestra and minimalism, but using the hang, which looks like a wok but sounds like a steel pan. Know any good porticos for photographs?

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

BBC Jazz Awards

This year's BBC Jazz Awards seem to have created more controversy than ever. Dave Gelly in the Observer has a go at what were probably two of the most important awards, to best group (Finn Peters) and best album (Neil Cowley), while only really loving one artist, the relatively retro Simon Spillett for Rising Star. Meanwhile, Tom Arthurs writes a thoughtful blog raising the issue more about the way in which some good music was presented at the award and a tendency towards show business razzmatazz.
I would certainly agree with some of Tom's criticisms about the way in which the music is presented. I think something more akin to the BBC World Music Awards would be appropriate: announce the winners in advance and then have a celebration concert. I don't quite know what the ceremony is supposed to achieve. If it's to get TV interest, then that's certainly failed. If it's to be humorous then it's palpably embarrassing. I don't think that most people would feel proud to be celebrated by being handed a lump of plastic and £90 performance fee for the recording. Certainly inadequate.
Funnily enough the list of winners and nominees is a lot better than it was last year, when Stacey Kent/Jim Tomlinson beat Polar Bear,Acoustic Ladyland and Partisans for best album and Jools Holland was Radio 2 Artist. I have a few small criticisms, especially about some of the signals that the awards give to the scene. Fine singer though Ian Shaw is (and a great mate, as I attend most of his Vortex gigs), I don't understand why the vocalist award nominees just included three past winners. Is that because there's no-one better and that the imaginative new singers like Christine Tobin don't have a chance. There are those out there like Barb Jungr and Julia Biel who are really trying to make an impression.
Simon Spillett might be justified in being nominated but again there is a negative signal from his victory. Backward looking imitation is to be rewarded in preference to those taking the past by the scruff of the neck and trying to take music forwards (such as is the case with Tom and James Allsopp).
Generally, the question that I ask myself is whether the winners are overall good for British jazz. I have my biases of course, but it comes out quite well from that regard.
There are gaps that must be filled over the next few years. No awards till now for Evan Parker or Kenny Wheeler particularly stand out as an aberration. Then there are important younger artists such as Django Bates. Almost totally forgotten about here (though not in Copenhagen where he has now moved to).
A good quality award structure has relevance. But not if the event is as downmarket as it is, and not if the glaring gaps never get filled.
British jazz is on a roll at present. Congratulations to Empirical on their prize at the North Sea Jazz Festival. (It was so important to them, that Nathaniel Facey performed like a dream for Billy Jenkins at Margate with just one hour's sleep.) Basquiat Strings will do our music proud at the Mercury Prize show. It's just that the BBC Jazz Awards are getting out of step with where the energy is and how the music is moving forwards. A few tweaks might be able to solve it. Heaven forbid that my ideas should rule - though I'd be happy to tell them if they wanted.
By the way, congratulations to Finn and Julian Siegel in particular. Great to have had a small help in getting you to your awards.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

New music today is amazing - but where can we hear it?

The record industry is in depression. (For me, that just means that they are catching up with the perennial state of the jazz sector.) But it has nothing to do with the quality of a lot which is being created at present. Last night's gig by Heidi Vogel at the Vortex is a case in point - with amazing guests like Eska just coming to sit in.
Many say that the live music side is that which is going to continue. Certainly, when I look at things as they are at the Vortex, I feel equally positive. But the venues too are not having it that easy. Two venues are about to close: Pizza On The Park (which failed to reinvent itself as a jazz/world music venue) and the Spitz. Meanwhile, bureaucracy isn't helping the rest. (The police are currently insisting that the Vortex might need 2 bouncers on the door if open late, because it's too dangerous in Dalston. An extra £60 a night.) Ronnie Scott's is being forced to putting on more "commercial" gigs in order to survive.
Squaring the circle doesn't seem that straightforward to me. It's all about getting the right balance between time taken to make a return and the costs. With patience it can be done. But someone somewhere, be it the landlord pushing up rents or a promoter with excessive short-term horizons, can destroy all the good work.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Singers and jazz

Are we about to re-enter a phase where singers in jazz can be more "singer songwriters" again, and we get away from the singers who have to live by just performing jazz standards or similar. On Babel, Christine Tobin has been doing this all along, but it's frustrating that someone like her has not yet got the full recognition that she deserves. (Christine plays Margate Jazz Festival at the Winter Gardens with the BBC Big Band next week.)
I have heard other singers with such imagination around. I'm doing a new album by Lleuwen Steffan, and recently I have been in contact with Paula Rae Gibson. A bit of a renaissance woman, as she's a photographer and poet as well. She bravely uses her experiences in her writing, while she is proud of the strong influence of Keith Jarrett on her music. Her next gig is on Thursday at Momo's, off Regent Street.
Lleuwen is equally strong on using herself as the basis of her writing. "Cocaine kills, but so does love" - what a lyric! She'll be at the Vortex on 17 July. I hope that the album will be out in early Autumn.
I really can't understand why the music world seems to feel that standards and jazz singers as accessories are what counts. The musicians are thought incapable of having original thought?
Christine, Lleuwen and Paula prove this wrong.

Friday, June 08, 2007

BBC Jazz award nominations

The full BBC Jazz Award nominations were announced yesterday. I reckon that the list is OK, in that any of the winners do the UK jazz scene reasonably proud. I am quite proud that the number of artists with Babel connections is quite high this year, namely:

Best instrumentalist:
Julian Siegel - stalwart of Partisans
Liam Noble - on albums by Christine Tobin and Let's Call This with Ingrid Laubrock

Rising Star:
Tom Arthurs - Centripede, Squash Recipe, Mesmer
James Allsopp - Fraud

Best album:
Fraud
Tom Cawley plays with Acoustic Ladyland

Best group:
Finn Peters - Su-Ling

As they say on the Fast Show: NICE!

Friday, June 01, 2007

Lost London jazz venues

I am creating a map on Google which shows venues in London that have been lost, either because they are no longer physically there or because the music side has vanished. Make comments here, or send me your addresses to info@babellabel.co.uk.
I've got a few, but what about the shops such as Mole, Dobell's, Ray's and venues like the Little Theatre, location of WAC where many musicians learnt at the feet of Ian Carr?

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Just written an article

Together with Selwyn Harris, I've done an article on jazz on Babel/Vortex/East London on the fly web site. Probably not new for many, but I'm proud of what's going on.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Comedy and jazz

John Fordham writes in the Guardian blog about the duo of Stefano Bollani and Stian Carstensen at Bath, and points out that ""comedy" had a lot of other meanings before it came to be defined as the art of raising a laugh - like testing the endurance of stereotypes, challenging authorities and received wisdoms, or simply resolving chaotic beginnings as happy endings. The balletic flourish, the haunted gaze into the distance, doesn't necessarily point to a more fundamental truth being in the air than the gale of laughter does."
As long as that's true I wholeheartedly agree with him. If comedy is there to hide technical inadequacy or to fill creative gaps, then it grates. But certainly, in being privileged to release albums by Billy Jenkins, he shows that technical genius can be combined with an ability to make us think about ourselves. However, the jazz world is too full of lovers of the music who feel that jazz's role is too serious and comedy hijacks it. I believe that, for too many years, the jazz world just couldn't get to grips with Billy. Maybe in fact it was too frightened.
Comedy can be used to great effect to get over very complex ideas. Not just Billy, but also performers such as Han Bennink, and, over here, Tom Bancroft's Kidsamonium bringing jazz to the new generation. Or even the Fast Show, which to me was one of the best advertisements that jazz had in the last decade - jazz is such a strong music form that it can surely laugh at itself too from time to time. I know several people curious to listen to the "real thing" as a result of watching the show. Here for example is their take on new British jazz.

While here's a track of Billy from Songs Of Praise. (Album out in September.)

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

I am a bouncer

There's a really good article on First Post about being a bouncer. It points out that the exam system is rubbish. I have passed my door supervisor Part 2 exam, having spent 4 days at Hackney College last November. (Ah, the things that you do as a jazz club director!) The article is right that it's all about talk and no action. Actually, I still haven't got the actual badge from the SIA, partly because of the time it takes to come through. I certainly found it useful from a "theoretical" viewpoint and it helps in talking to Jay, who does the door at the Vortex. The key is EMPATHY. The article points out that there is no way of learning about what's called reasonable force, which you might need if there's trouble. In fact, when I asked at the course about it, the lecturer (an ex copper) was clearly frustrated, as he launched into a long soliloquy about why it needed a separate course, and kept referring back to this frequently during the remaining 4 days.
So, can most doormen really sort out problems? Fortunately, it made me realise that I could just about deal with a place like the Vortex, but anywhere else would be disastrous.
It's probably because there's a shortage of bouncers and doormen. But certainly just to think that anyone is sufficiently qualified by spending 4 days and £150 is certainly rubbish.
By the way, I also have passed the BIIAB exam and am a personal licensee for the venue. So, I'm becoming really well qualified at last. (Forget degrees from Oxford University and LSE!)

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Football and jazz - the worrying parallels

Liverpool fans were turned away from the European Champions' League Final yesterday partly because so many tickets were being taken by corporates and similar. This has parallels for me as to what has just now been happening at Ronnie Scott's or the large festivals. The "fans" have been locked out, and put off by the high prices. The true fans are the life blood of the music, as much as the musicians. The atmosphere is as much a part of the whole listening experience as the music itself. Just as with football, where most fans will no longer get the chance to go regularly to see their club, it could become the same with jazz if the Ronnie's model becomes the norm. And this atmosphere is partly created by people who want to be there and appreciate it beyond just paying the money at the door.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Led Bib - one of the 25 acts not to be missed this summer.

According to the Observer Music Magazine, Led Bib were ranked at 16, putting them above White Stripes, Arctic Monkeys, Bjork and Spinal Tap. Of course there's a degree of randomness to such a list, but it's good that they are there!
You can read the full list by clicking here.

Visas, work permits, airlines - it's getting harder to travel for jazz musicians

The cost of work permits has already impacted on jazz. It now costs £190, whether it be for a 100 piece orchestra on a 20 date tour or for one musician to come in once. I recall musicians like Marc Copland coming in regularly to play with Stan Sulzmann because he was on tour in Europe. No longer.
Yesterday I learnt that to come over with a visa is 310 euros - even if you have already been living in Europe for 15 years. This was the case for Cynthia Liao, violist with the Radio String Quartet, which played the Vortex yesterday. She's from Taipei and has lived in Vienna for 15 years. This means no problem for her travelling round those EU countries covered by the Schengen agreement. But not only did she have to pay 310 euros to come here (which is around 15 euros an hour for the time she spent here), she had to spend hours trying to fill in the online application and have an interview at the Embassy. Thanks to the help of Siggi Loch and her record label ACT, we could absorb it. But it is absolutely crazy. Until last month it was just £85.
Allied to this, I found out that basses can only be taken on planes if they weigh less than 32 kg. So, now it's more and more essential for venues to have access to local good quality instruments. But it also can affect the quality of recordings if musicians have to use instruments to which they aren't accustomed, or aren't of the quality. For about 5 years, we had a wonderful time when it was easy to fly around Europe as a musician. No longer.
Meanwhile, small operations like the Vortex or Babel just get their options more and more limited.
By the way, check out the Radio String Quartet if you have a chance. Their take on Mahavishnu Orchestra is amazing, all the more so if you think that none of them were born at the time the original music came out.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Awards and prizes - are they worth it?

There is a perennial debate about the value of awards and prizes. A number of Babel releases have received, or been nominated for, awards over the past decade, ranging from the nomination of "Held On The Tips Of Fingers" by Polar Bear for the Mercury Prize through various BBC Jazz Awards downwards. In general, I am a fan, but based on the one proviso that the awards have a decent objective assessment of the categories. As long as the results are "reasonable" I think that they do a good job in helping to promote the music. Usually, many of the jazz awards are OK (though I always think that Babel albums and artists on the label should be winners).
However, they get shown up by some of the strange nominations and choices. These devalue the actual awards themselves. For example, Jamie Cullum was shortlisted for a prize as top European jazz musician. As an entertainer and someone who uses a jazz trio as backing, I would have no problem. But his artistic creativity is surely at issue. (The winner was Bobo Stenson.) Similarly, the Ronnie Scott's Awards were to a great degree a travesty in terms of some of the "international" categories. Scott Hamilton as best saxophonist? Jane Monheit as best vocalist? Kyle Eastwood as best bassist? Certainly there are better than a Zoot Sims soundalike and a man with a famous film star father. The UK awards were actually much better. I think that choosing the likes of Courtney Pine, Dennis Rollins as trombonist, and Fraud as UK newcomer present very little problem. But those international choices really devalued their overall value.
Anyway, those choices also highlight the difficulties about Ronnie Scott's today. It's difficult to be too critical because the refurbishment is great and the history of the club is second to none. That is, until two years ago. They are trading on their history and the club has lost so much of its support for jazz musicians and jazz lovers. They are being trampled under foot for the sake of tourists and excessive commercial criteria.
Two entries on the Guardian blog cover this, by Richard Williams and John Fordham.

Monday, May 07, 2007

I'm immortalised?

I've been immortalised for my evening antics - washing up glasses at the Vortex - on the Guardian blog. I'm sure that this is what my mum and dad really expected of me when they proudly celebrated my passing the Oxford entrance exam in 1973? Anyway, once we have our dressing rooms in place, then we won't be losing bass spikes so easily again, I hope.

Friday, May 04, 2007

What is jazz?

Sid Caesar tells us in 90 seconds.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

To punk jazz or not to punk jazz?

We like to show our fairness and not just put up the good reviews. So here are two, by Phil Johnson from the Independent on Sunday (of Led Bib) and Jack Massarik (of the Evening Standard) of Finn Peters.

Reviewers are just privileged punters with just the chance to have their own views in the printed media. That makes them as fallible as the rest of us. For example, Phil Johnson is really just taking it out on punk jazz, and the likes of Soft Machine, rather than on Led Bib per se.

"As with most things, you can blame post-modernism. But what irks about the punk-jazz trend, apart from music college grads squawking like they're down and dirty Bowery boys, is hearing something that wasn't that great in the first place, done so much worse. Drummer/ composer Mark Holub's quintet Led Bib have an unusual two-alto front- line, add Soft Machine-prog to the normal Ornettelite, and there are even electric bass solos. But Soft Machine had Elton Dean, who was a master. Having sat cross-legged through the original without having much fun, I'm unwilling to concede that this has much reason to exist at all."

Jack Massarik on Finn Peters.
"The best jazz, we know, is supposed to be the sound of surprise. Yet even so it was a bit much last night to catch what was billed as a promotional gig for Finn Peters's new album, Su-Ling, only to find the altoist using another line-up and playing different music altogether. Gone were bassist Tom Herbert and guitarist David Okumu, replaced by tuba specialist Oren Marshall and trombonist Trevor Mires.

And without warning, his album's glossy multi-cultural sophistication was substituted by a raucous old-fashioned free-improv free-for-all. Blame the full moon. Peters, a Jekyll and Hyde saxman if ever there was one, had somehow transmuted from versatile but glib neo-bop sessionman to discordant, self-indulgent iconoclast, mangling Sixties themes by the liberated likes of pianist Mischa Mengelberg and altoist Carlos Ward.

Presented as lofty original compositions were negligible whole-tone phrases of the kind wittily used in passing by true improvising masters like Dexter Gordon and Sonny Rollins. Apart from Peters's broad flute tone on Ballad Boy, the only truly enjoyable moment came when Marshall produced an extraordinary series of deep burping and bubbling noises which suggested that his giant bass-tuba had suddenly turned nasty and was about to eat him alive."

P.S. The second set was fully devoted to the music from the album. So no guesses as to who didn't hang around for it. And what's so wrong with Mischa Mengelberg anyway?

Claudia Quintet at Vortex

At the Vortex tomorrow (Thursday), The Claudia Quintet. Led by John Hollenbeck, the band includes Drew Gress, Chris Speed and others. Be there!!!! www.vortexjazz.co.uk 020 7254 4097. Just £9, or £7 if you're a concession. Much cheaper than when they play in Cheltenham at the weekend....

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Dublin 12 points

I spent two days at the new 12 Points festival put on by Gerry Godley in Dublin. Big congratulations to Gerry for working out a way of putting young musicians together in this way, giving many a great opportunity to get international festival experience at an early point in their careers. Led Bib were there, and played stormingly, as I would hope and expect. The other great impact over the two days was by Carsten Daerr from Berlin. Dynamism, tightness and effective interplay. Now I have to try and work out a way to get them to London. I was glad to hear some of the other bands there, such as Daniel Szabo from Hungary, but didn't feel that they had that "special" feature that means that I would want to bring them to London. It's always been a principle behind Babel that I try and record artists that have a uniqueness and validity to be heard beyond the confines of their own locality. It's a relief that Led Bib proved themselves here, and Fraud are one of the next in the line that I have been lucky to find.
It's vitally important that young bands get chances to cross borders and develop careers around Europe. Some governments realise this, such as the Goethe Institut. The British Council no longer knows how, concentrating on the political agenda further afield. Promoters such as Gerry do this by organising festivals, and also manage to bring in outsiders - such as me - to hear. The Vortex, by contrast, has to work out ways of integrating it into the annual programme. Such bands are coming in, often at the behest of musicians themselves, as was the case at the recent F-Ire festival, where musicians such as Stephane Payen came and played the club. It's difficult to get the curiosity levels of the public up. Persistence is one way that we'll do it, I hope.
ONE LAST REQUEST FOR YOU TO VOTE FOR FRAUD AND FINN FOR THE BBC JAZZ AWARDS. Link through from here.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Don't you love live music?

It's so exciting to work with some of the musicians in this scene. Such a diversity from one day to the next and such quality.
Thursday was a showcase at Steinway Hall for Richard Fairhurst and Tom Arthurs. What a sense of history when you walk around the million pounds worth of pianos there. A hall of fame including Berlioz, Stravinsky, Duke Ellington, Schnabel - and Richard Fairhurst. Totally acoustic, and incredible empathy (A word which I learnt when doing my bouncer's course.)
Meanwhile yesterday, Partisans truly confirmed why it's great when a band continues for years (in their case celebrating 10 years). It's become a sort of jazz "super group" with Phil Robson and Julian Siegel themselves proving themselves in all sorts of musical configurations. Chris Batchelor slotted in and really created a fantastic gig. The start, with Max, was gobsmacking. No wonder I couldn't get them out of the Vortex till 2 a.m. Why this band didn't get nominated for a BBC Jazz Award, I'll really never know. Of course, I'm happy for the others, such as Finn. Go for it, guys!

The Spitz - worrying news

The Spitz has announced that it is under risk of closing in September. Disaster, as there are so few venues for that sort of music of that size in London. How can we save it or replace it?

I hope that they find some sort of person who can act as a mentor and passionate saviour. We had this at the Vortex, with people like Tim Ward, Derek Drescher and myself, while the Hackney Empire was lucky enough to get hold of Griff Rhys-Jones. The problem faced by the Vortex was also made a bit easier that the size of venue that we were looking for was just for 100 people. The Spitz is that bit larger. Knowing the attitude of some commercial property developers making grabs at the area close to the City and in "fashionable" East London, I am really worried that the Spitz itself is lost unless there is a dramatic change somewhere.

However, with old factories and so on coming free, maybe there's an alternative even if it takes some time for it to develop. Of course, this leads to the other problem of local authorities and licensing. I know full well how problematic these guys can be in Hackney, where they don't have a jobsworth, but a Papworth.

If you've got a few million to spare, give it to the Spitz now. If you've got a building to spare, call the Spitz immediately.

Good luck Spitz! Good luck Rupert

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Billy Jenkins on Youtube

Some great Billy Jenkins footage on Youtube. There's more from the Songs of Praise tour than this.

Monday, April 16, 2007

BBC Jazz Awards - Fraud and Finn Peters

Great to hear that Fraud's new album is nominated for a BBC Jazz Award, even before it's properly in the shops, and Finn Peters' band is nominated for best band. Now please vote for them on this page for Fraud and this page for Finn. It's funny that Fraud's album isn't even in the shops yet. So all credit to the interest that this has brought.
Babel has had reasonable success in the BBC Awards over the years. Two years ago Huw Warren and Acoustic Ladyland won, but last year with three nominations for album of the year (Acoustic Ladyland, Polar Bear and Partisans) Jim Tomlinson and Stacey Kent won. So, I can't place too much hope on the winning itself. As long as the awards are won by reasonable people, then I have no complaint. We have yet to hear some of the other nominations. It would be good if there were a few more Babel artists there too.
I feel that, while the focus is rightly on the musician, the fact that they are brought to the attention of the public and judges is part of a partnership of the musician with record label and agent (with stress on the word "partnership"). The partnership is never perfect, unfortunately, but I try my best! I have a little sticker that I was given by Ivor Cutler in the bottom corner of my computer screen. It says it all. "Imperfection is an end. Perfection is only an aim."


Saturday, April 14, 2007

I'm feeling excited

I'm excited that, after a break, there are new releases on the horizon. Led Bib over the next couple of weeks. Great young crowd at their pre-launch gig at the Vortex, with Tom Arthurs and Richard Fairhurst playing at Steinway Hall next week, and the Fraud album to come. I find it hard to understand why people think it exceptional that there are young audiences coming out to hear bands like these at the Vortex. "Ah, but London's different", they say to me. But is it really? There are potential younger jazz lovers all over the country. So why shouldn't it be possible, with patience and imagination to target them in Derby or Manchester?

Friday, April 06, 2007

Cuts in Arts Council grants

I had a meeting last week with someone doing market research for the Arts Council which is having an "arts debate". If they hadn't interviewed me, then there would have been no focus whatsoever on jazz. It doesn't even seem to feature on their radar. I think that grants to jazz total 0.5% of their grant giving even though jazz audiences are the same size as those for opera!
Meanwhile, a large focus of getting money (and that includes the Vortex) is Grants for the Arts. These have just been reduced dramatically by 35 % according to the Guardian. Surreptitiously done and all the money goes to the Olympics. These have been vital for many years to support tours and other one-off projects. For example we have applied for £30000 for a new piano and p.a. from that scheme. It's also clear that the touring circuit for jazz has virtually disappeared over the past few years. I think that we can now get rid of the word "virtually" for the future.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Are we in an era of the jazz BAND?

More and more the groups of musicians are showing their commitment to performance by being a band rather than a project with a band leader - so that a band such as Polar Bear has a nominal leader/composer (Seb Rochford), but the performances definitely have a group dynamic to them. It's certainly not the Seb Rochford Quintet, nor a short-term project commissioned for a festival or similar. Nor is it "Seb Rochford's Polar Bear". Of course, bands become associated with particular members, sometimes wrongly - how often is Acoustic Ladyland thought of as having Seb as leader and not Pete Wareham? - but there's more to it than being a leader with sidemen. That approach is of course still very important to jazz but even then too often allowed the sidemen to be submerged. For me the trail has been blazed by Partisans which has now reached its 10th anniversary, but I know that Phil Robson and Julian Siegel have battled against fuddy-duddy promoters who thought that it was past its "sell by"date because they have viewed it as a short-term project.
It's something that existed here with bands like Soft Machine. Partisans is a link to the new generation. Polar Bear and Acoustic Ladyland helped matters further, while now Babel has releases about to appear by Led Bib (with Mark Holub as leader) and Fraud (music and leadership by James Allsop and Tim Giles), both fearlessly and proudly to be bands. (Last night I heard Curios, which for some could be regarded as Tom Cawley's piano trio, but it has more than that with the interplay between Tom, Sam Burgess and Josh Blackmore as crucial in the interpretation of Tom's music.) Gwilym Simcock had a similar unanimity of purpose when he performed with Phil Donkin and Martin France at the Vortex a couple of weeks ago. It was billed as Gwilym Simcock, but in my view that underestimated what went on. I hope that he gives this line-up a name, which can then contrast with a Gwilym Simcock trio gig, which would consist of leader + X on bass + Y on drums. When band members are hand picked to give a particular edge to performance and the group develops and develops, then it's a good sign for the group to become a band with a specific name.
Another stimulus to this blog has been that I noticed on the Cheltenham Jazz Festival programme that they bill Fulborn Teversham as "Sebastian Rochford's Fulborn Teversham". WRONG. Pete Wareham and Nick Ramm have been vital members all along.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Blues at the Vortex - The Chess Sessions

Grandmaster Supports Vortex Chess Sessions!

Chess grandmaster Daniel King is giving his support to the Here Is The Blues! - Vortex Chess Sessions!

Here is The Blues is a duo consisting of Steve Morrison and Billy Jenkins. Billy was the mastermind behind the jazz meets football for the World Cup. (Check out the video.)

Mr King has been a professional chess player for over 20 years. In addition, he is a games consultant, television presenter, freelance journalist, and an award winning author of 14 books. He also has a reputation as a rather fine double bass player.

"Chess, jazz and blues have a lot in common", says King, "as both involve daring spontaneous manoeuvres over pre-determined complex and myriad theorems and structures."

Daniel will be in attendance on the opening afternoon (1st April) to informally wish the series well and listen to the gentle twang of 'Here Is The Blues!' - but if you ask him nicely he might advise on a hot move or two!

Then, on the final afternoon (29th April) he'll take on ten players simultaneously at 2pm before the music gets underway!

Find out more about Daniel at www.danielking.biz

Monday, March 05, 2007

Babel - part of a worldwide conspiracy

There's a great underlying rumour spreading around the BBC Jazz messageboard - that's there an unholy alliance between Babel, F-ire Collective and Jazz on 3. We all meet weekly at a tapas bar in Islington....
What makes it all the more amusing is the reasoning given, such as about Babel. While, ultimately, they got the ownership right - i.e. me - they argue that there must be a secret backer, as Babel does something that jazz labels don't do, which is market its product and artists!
I hope that this thread runs and runs and gets more and more ridiculous, because it's great fun. I am flattered. (Next point to bear in mind. Jazzwise is clearly also part of the conspiracy, as there will be a Babel compilation on the cover next month. While the Vortex shouldn't be left out either. And Chris Parker, who writes the reviews in the Vortex, is clearly at the centre of the web of intrigue. The first man, not even the fourth.)
It's excellent how the internet can shoot off about things, and get stories moving. However (and there often is a "however") rumour can disinformation can become fact. The people doing this messageboard, such as King Kennytone, are clearly passionate, but make 2+2 equal any number between 3 and 5.
When this happens, who knows? It was probably much slower in the world of print, word of mouth and so on. Now, the internet speeds the story round the world in hours or minutes.
Blogs are becoming an important means of communication, but of course have little check that a professional journalist is supposed to have.

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

The Value of Jazz report

I am seeing too many comments on the Value of Jazz report from Jazz Services where people are obsessed by whether they are mentioned or not. Generally looking for the gaps. That's important but people then get too much up their arses and ignore important trends. Indeed it's true that there are probably even more courses than mentioned (Chris Yates pointed out the omission of Newcastle in the list of courses in Jazz Rag.) and some venues have been missed. But these deflect from the importance of the report in giving an indication of where things are and certainly give a foundation for action. I understand that Jazz Services now wants to concentrate on updating it. That'll be like painting the Forth Rail Bridge - by the time that they've done it it'll be due for another review. Worthy as long as that's not all that goes on. Still, it keeps the bureaucrats able to further an illusion that things are getting done. In the mean time, the real world of jazz moves on and we have to find our own guidance.
The difficulty for those trying to measure the value of jazz is that the sector is similar to social capital - as much to do with the informal, unregulated and based on custom and trust as with the codified and organised systems which organisations such as the Arts Council try to work through. It's what creates much of the excitement for people and the sense of surprise. For example, I am always pleased when people come from places such as Islington to the Vortex. Very few would think that there is a jazz venue North of Ball's Pond Road: they would tend to look to Camden or the West End rather than the "mean streets of Hackney".

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Led Bib and Fraud!

I reckon that these two bands come under the heading "incendiary jazz". Building on Partisans, Polar Bear and Acoustic Ladyland's legacy with confidence and energy. Both are fearless. Seeing (and hearing) Fraud and Gwilym Simcock's trio within two days of each other really shows how strongly jazz is moving on with the new generation. Both with the same intensity and willingness to take the audience into new ground in an uncompromising manner though with (superficially) very different approaches - Fraud is in your face, Gwilym is subtler and acoustic
Both Gwilym and James Allsopp (one of Fraud's leaders) were direct contemporaries at the Royal Academy of Music. Indeed, I think that they even shared a house for a year.
Led Bib is playing at Bar Rumba on 8 March. It's FREE and starts at 6 p.m. (Also, drinks are two for one at that time, an added reason to be there.)

Thursday, February 22, 2007

New Babel compilation on the way on Jazzwise

Look out for a new Babel compilation with next month's Jazzwise magazine. "Characters of Jazz" with tracks by Billy Jenkins, Led Bib, Fraud, Acoustic Ladyland, Polar Bear, Christine Tobin, Peter Herbert, Huw Warren, Duw A Wyr and others.
All hail, Jon and Stephen at Jazzwise.
1 Finn Peters – Gato (from Su-Ling)
BDV 2664
2 Christine Tobin – House of Women (from House of Women)
BDV 9820
3 Led Bib – The Keeper (from Sizewell Tea)
BDV 2665
4 Ingrid Laubrock/Liam Noble – Subconscious Lee (from Let’s Call This…) BDV 2661
5 Billy Jenkins – If I Were a Lollipop Man (from When the Crowds Have Gone)
BDV 2450
6 Fraud
– Voodoo Teeth (from Fraud
7 Acoustic Ladyland – Nico (from Last Chance Disco) BDV 2555
8 Huw Warren/ Peter Herbert – Interlude/Whistling Rufus (from Everything we Love and More) BDV 2561
9 Steve Arg├╝elles – ‘Lady Be Good’ with ‘Johnny B. Goode’ (from Blue Moon in a Function Room)
BDV 9402
10 Billy Jenkins - Old Men in Flares (from Still Sounds Like Bromley) BDV 9717
11 Lleuwen Steffan/Huw Warren/Mark Lockheart - Ebeneser (from God Only Knows/Duw a Wyr) BDV 2558
12 Dudley Phillips - General Custer (from Life without Trousers)
BDV 2453
13 Polar Bear – King of Aberdeen (from Held on the Tips of Fingers)
BDV 2552
14 Julie Sassoon – Safe Passage
(from New Life) BDV 2662
15Disorder on the Border – Monsieur Concorde (from Vol 1) BDV 2338
16 Madalena - Enid Querida (from Murmur)
BDV 2027
17 Tom Arthurs & Richard Fairhurst – Mesmer (from Mesmer)
18 Phil Robson – Jealous Guy (from Screenwash)
BDV 2445


Well done Finn


Just read that Finn Peters' album Su-Ling has been nominated for the All Parliamentary Jazz Appreciation Group Awards. Great to have the chance to win the award with the longest name in history.
The album also came in top 5 in Gilles Peterson's Worldwide Awards and was number 6 in the Jazzwise year end album of the year list.

Some trends of the last 10 years

Following the thoughts that I had about small venues, Selwyn Harris is writing a piece about the past ten years, since the foundation of Jazzwise. A few of my thoughts.
More:
Festivals
Small labels run by musicians
Great young jazz musicians
Jazz courses at conservatoires
Chances for young people at schools to learn about jazz (e.g. Associated Board exams)
Chances to buy music online, both through download and through mail order (e.g. Amazon, Jazzcds.co.uk)
Diversity of jazz audience

Fewer or no greater:
National tours for large groups, due to fewer grants from Arts Council and Contemporary Music Network.
Jazz support by major record labels for UK artists.
Good gigs at Ronnie Scott's
Support from Arts Council
International touring opportunities supported by British Council
Jazz coverage in national press

A lot of these are due to my own observations, e.g. washing up at the Vortex, making tea at Babel.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Mike Pickering as osteopath


Billy Jenkins asked me to mention this to you:
"Having worked alongside Mike for the last six years watching his second calling grow, fitting Blues Collective gigs around important exams, listening to him enthusing about cruciate ligaments, neck joints and all that stuff on endless motorway journeys, I have no hesitation in sending you this. He is very gifted.
"He has spent the last eighteen months working as both a sports masseur and associate osteopath at the famous Garry Trainer Clinic in Primrose Hill, where the great and the good from the entertainment and sports world flock, he has now opened his own practice in East Dulwich, London SE 22.
"And to get his new base off the ground, Mike (who also is a qualified acupuncturist) will be offering special deals for the next few weeks. Just tell him Billy sent you!"

Contact Mike on 07966 505872 or by email at mikepickering@homechoice.co.uk

An open letter to Kenny G

Dear Mr G
I am writing to you as a major shareholder in Starbucks.
You may be aware of the current situation of the old Vortex building in Stoke Newington Church Street and the possibility that it could become the first outpost of the Starbucks chain in this part of North London, despite denials to the contrary. If you allow this to happen then Starbucks is an accomplice with Mr Richard Midda, the building's owner, in the demise of what was an important location for jazz in London during the 1990s. Mr Midda, from the time that he bought the building, did many things to squeeze the club out. Moving into the building and operating as just another branch of the chain gives a financial vindication and would be a blinkered move. You also prove that your commitment to jazz is illusory.
I therefore request that (a) either Starbucks definitively confirms that it will NEVER open a branch there in deference to the building's history or (b) that it will only do so on condition that the jazz club is revived. Starbucks already sponsors a number of jazz festivals in the UK. It is ironic if it also helps puts nails in the coffin of an iconic building for music.
The move of the Vortex to Dalston was forced on it by the intransigent position of Mr Midda. That it is thriving there has been at a great expense of time and money of the many involved. To have been able to stay in Stoke Newington Church Street would have been desirable.
Yours sincerely,
Oliver Weindling
Director, New Vortex Jazz Club Limited

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Helping the small jazz club

I was looking at Jazz Services' Value of Jazz report, casting my eye over it as an ex-economist. Such reports' main interest is, for me, not in the detail of whether the figures are correct to the nearest decimal point, but rather the implications thereof.
Of course, there are all sorts of things that one can query over the figures, and I'll concentrate on one or two others soon, such as about the recorded sector. But one that really caught my eye for now was about the number of small gigs. There are at least 45,000 gigs a year in the UK, of which 67% were for audiences of under 100. These are the bedrock of the jazz world. In particular, the jazz clubs are important because they provide continuous opportunities for musicians: at the Vortex, there was a period at the end of January into early February where 20 bands played over a 10 day period, ranging from two nights of Uri Caine and Sarah Jane Morris through to teenage Milesisms of Expressed. And yet, the funding mechanism concentrates on the large festivals and arts centres. 74% of jazz clubs received no funding, and, using a bit of creative work, I reckon that the average subsidy per jazz club is £800 a year! (The Vortex itself has received zero direct funding over the last year, though of course some bands have been by the likes of Jazz Services while the club has also piggy-backed on publicity for the London Jazz Festival.)
So, a club like the Vortex only keeps going by working as a team with the musicians (i.e. door splits) and the audience (volunteers are worth well over £35,000 a year while we have received around £5,000 as donations via the Vortex Jazz Foundation). This doesn't take into account the man hours of directors themselves - recently Derek Drescher, David Mossman and Derek's friend Mike (average age 66) spent nearly two days building a stage.
All the focus goes on the likes of the jazz festivals and those things which make a "splash". Now, suppose you live in Bath. You have a lovely time at the Bath Festival, hearing great music. But if you live there, do you really get enough of an annual fix over the jazz weekend? What happens over the remaining 362 days of the year if you want to hear live jazz?
I look forward to hearing Jazz Services take this subject further. I understand that all they are currently planning to do is to update the figures.....

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Old Vortex now open as a community centre.


The Old Vortex on Stoke Newington Church Street is currently a community centre. More details if you go to their web site. It would be great to feel that this is giving a new beginning to a building which has meaning to a lot of us. David Mossman's legacy becomes not just the new Vortex building in Dalston but also the continued life of the old one. Unfortunately, Richard Midda the owner is a canny operator, and the chance of him taking the money and putting in Starbuck's is high. He will probably say that he is doing the area a favour by giving them Starbuck's (or Tesco). The residents will vote with their feet and it will probably do well acting as a meeting for baby buggies and mothers after their walk in the park. However, the transformation of Church Street as a small equivalent of the Left Bank to a mere facade will be complete. It will have gone the way of Hampstead, Islington and Highgate over the past decade. In fact, there will probably be a few jobs going for musicians to act the lifestyle of musicians in a living museum. But even if there is a touch of inevitability about this, we can still try and delay the onslaught as long as possible.
It's great that, for now at least, we have been able to avoid selling out like this at The Vortex in Dalston. Il Bacio is a chain of sorts, as this is its fourth branch. But it remains a local operation as the other branches are in Church Street and Finsbury Park and the owner Luigi is regularly in the kitchen. It is adding to diversity of the area, by being the first pizzeria to open in the centre of Dalston. It would have all too tempting to put in something like Starbucks (who sponsor jazz festivals in Manchester and Edinburgh) or Giraffe (which has a strong link to the Putumayo world music label in outlook). They'd have paid a good rent and put on the semblance of support for what the Vortex is trying to achieve. We'll leave the chains to South Dalston Lane and the Kingsland Shopping Centre.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Vortex - evolution not revolution

The Vortex, partly by financial restriction but partly by choice, adds bits and changes slowly. Financial restriction - that's obvious really. It's a venue that has to survive mainly through its wits in prising out admission fees and money from the bar. (The Arts Council and other official bodies have tended to be relatively cool so far to offering anything.) This means that things have to be added slowly.
But. It means that it's possible to consult and discuss before things happen. A stage was built last weekend. The carpenters (Derek Drescher, David Mossman and Mike) had an average age of 65. However, the height and way it was packed with Rockwool was the culmination of 18 months of debate. Pressure to put it in now was due to the opening of Il Bacio downstairs. Food available every evening at last. We need to avoid too much noise affecting their business of selling pizzas. The archetype we thought of was what happens when Gene Calderazzo gives his all at a Partisans gig. (Gene is our role model of a drummer in many ways. The set-up of the club's kit is also thanks to his advice.)
And it's working well. A few musicians had felt that no stage created intimacy, though audiences were beginning to comment, especially at some of the full gigs. I myself have sympathy with the "no stage" approach, though it's clear that a stage works better, and that the height (just 12 inches) is the upper limit before any of that connection with the audience is lost.
Now, the next stage is improving the sound system and sorting out the piano. The p.a. is also better than it was earlier in the year, thanks to the help of Jeremy Farnell in cleaning up the wires and Harvey Brough for lending his mixing desk. But comments are always welcome as to how the final configuration should be. Sarah-Jane Morris had been saying that, while the quality was fine, it needed more monitors and more d.i. boxes. She was surprised that the club didn't have them yet. The reply was "Thanks. We're grateful for your reactions, and they will be taken into account when the next stage of improvement takes place."
One feeling that remains vital is that the Vortex is everyone's front room. Unprompted, both Sarah-Jane and Nikki Yeoh both actually described the Vortex like that. We must hope that this isn't lost. That loyalty and empathy between audience and the musicians created by the club must not be lost and it's an important part of David Mossman's legacy.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Bruce McKinnon

I am shocked and saddened to hear that Bruce McKinnon who was part of the trio Squash Recipe died on Wednesday 17 January of a rare cancer.
Obviously not as high profile as the other recent deaths (Michael Brecker and Alice Coltrane), I only met Bruce the one time when he toured with Tom Arthurs and Joe Sorbara last Spring. I was impressed by the thoughtfulness of his playing. Also that his parents were so supportive of him. The guys were walking along Charing Cross Road outside Foyle's when they saw people who looked familiar. Indeed they were, as Bruce's parents were paying him a surprise visit. I feel proud that Babel helped bring out their one release together. A promising musician who was only beginning to make his mark. I wish his family and friends long life.
By the way, there is a lovely tribute to Michael Brecker on the Bad Plus blog by Mark Turner.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Muenster Jazz Festival

It was nice to start the year at Muenster Jazz Festival. The best for me were the new group of Louis Sclavis, who always has that cerebral side to him, though he was using a really good young band. "L'imparfait des langues" not what one would usually expect from an ECM album. I also liked Atomic from Norway, Mikiel Braam from Netherlands, Fat City Wednesdays, who were "suburban nerds" from Minneapolis doing a great take on Don Cherry. Hopefully they'll come to London to play with Evan Parker some time soon.
Also an exhausting peripheral programme, including a morning bowling session, where I teamed up with Yann, a promoter from Perpignan, to help the entente cordiale. We even won one match, against teams from Holland, Scotland and Norway. I'll post our prize presentation soon. We didn't get to keep the main prize, a James Last LP called Voodoo Party with a bizarre cover and sleeve note.
But even festivals like this which are relatively cheap for the city to put on, and have a long history are now under pressure. What was good fortune that they were well supported by the Muenster has now become a great risk. If the city decides to pull the plug then that means the end of the festival. And that certainly is a possibility. Unfortunately, these decisions are more political than practical. That was also the problem for Caber in Scotland. Tom Bancroft was there who ran the label, and probably did more for improving awareness of the scene over its five years than any amount of official jazz networks could have done. Unfortunately, he was reliant on Scottish Arts Council funding, especially once his distributor went bust. Now the bureaucrats are back to using formalistic organisations that go so slowly, so slowly.