Monday, December 22, 2008

New Babel releases for 2009

The following have been confirmed for early 2009. Not too many, but great all the same.
Big Air - Chris Batchelor, Steve Buckley, Oren Marshall, Myra Melford, Jim Black. Already selected as a CD of the year by Jazz on 3!
Zed-U. Shabaka Hutchings, Neal Charles, Tom Skinner. They were in the studio at the weekend and the album will be ready for April.
Amit Chaudhuri - author and musician, known more for his writing and commentaries but also able to move easily between and raag, jazz and blues.
More soon on the Babel web site.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The recession. Should jazz be worried?

It's strange that, over recent months, I have moved from being a big pessimist to a degree of optimism for jazz. I think - and hope - that jazz is well placed to weather the stormy recession clouds and storms. The Financial Times should be regarded as being printed on blood, and not pink, coloured paper!
Nevertheless, at the Vortex it's possibly the best December since the club reopened in Dalston, and the programme for 2009 looks really promising. My little shop is beginning to work out, as I now have an array of music available, both directly related to the club and also by many others, e.g. from elsewhere in Europe. Of course, that only happens because my requirements, financially, are relatively modest. I still haven't, though, got enough to justify paying someone when I'm not around! (So, when I was in Amsterdam at the Dutch Jazz Meeting at the weekend, I probably missed sales at the Acoustic Ladyland gig etc.)
Jazz has quality and value to it. It may seem trivial at a time of boom where there are quick bucks to be made elsewhere. But during the recession, it has a longevity that people will look towards.
There are problems, of course. The bankruptcy of distributor Pinnacle and Brecon Jazz Festival, the problems of Zavvi (via EUK), show that we are not immune. A lot of jazz musicians will suffer in terms of a few hundred pounds here and even perhaps a few thousand. This is concerning. But their commitment and flexibility will hopefully see many of them through.
Larger events, reliant on subsidy and grant, are also vulnerable. I have heard some worrying stories about private sponsors of festivals, as well as seeing how foundations and companies are cutting back. Not because of their respect of liking of the music. Just because of the exigencies that the recession brings.
The strength of the music is its ability to be flexible and look for the opportunities. Those who grew in the hope that the boom years would help out and continue are likely to be those who suffer most and have to adapt most.
I keep my fingers crossed.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

And now the good news....?

It's been a perverse year at Babel. When the economy was doing well, it was a drag on our activities having to sort out some of our payments to musicians. Now that the recession has hit good and proper, things are moving in a positive direction, for reasons that I can't yet fathom.
Portico Quartet's CD has continued to sell and sell, and it was a delight to see them at a sold-out ICA on Wednesday, confident and with some exciting new material and effects. It's probably Babel's best selling CD of all time by now!
The Vortex's piano has now been paid off, thanks to an individual act of generosity. With a further substantial donation by another "friend" to come, it means that almost certainly the club can weather the recession.
Finally, at a time when the retail music sector is in meltdown (more on the Pinnacle/New Note/Cadiz story unfolding soon), I have opened a Babel shop at the Vortex! Between the Nigerian travel agent and Somali qat seller. More a jazz deli than a supermarket, I feel that it's time to go back to basics and directness.
I have many CDs of the young jazz generation who perform regularly at the Vortex. Blink, John Randall, Amit Chaudhuri to name a few who are otherwise unavailable.
Why the (relative) optimism? My first thought is that at a time of recession like this, jazz is no longer peripheral. Quality and value are two important elements that spring to mind. It's music that can repay constant revisiting. Yet costs the same or less than other entertainments around. (My local cinema is more expensive than a usual Vortex gig.)

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Portico Quartet to win Mercury? But Christine Tobin has already won...

It's a great week for us. The Portico Quartet's Knee Deep In The North Sea is a Nationwide Mercury Album Of The Year (n.b. that I got the desired description correct). Wow. That's the second Babel album in 4 years. (Polar Bear's Held On The Tips Of Fingers was chosen in 2005.) The difference this time is that this lot may win.!?
But Christine Tobin DID win the BBC Jazz Award for Best Vocalist - at last, and so well deserved. While Fraud got the gong for Innovation. The only loser was me personally. I lost out to Alan Bates. I'm not going to appeal. Alan has done such a lot over the years for the music.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Selling a home

Over the past few months, much of my time has been taken with the sale of my home. It's been in the family for 57 years, my parents rebuilt it after the Second World War, and it's been owned by my two brothers and me. Notwithstanding all the emotional shenanigans - though these have been adequately recompensed by the sale price - I have found the nature of the top end property market really demoralising. Full of lies, though done with a sense of being my "friend". (It took me a couple of weeks to realise what was going on.)
Anyway, the most distasteful state of this was shown by my dealings with one of the leading estate agents in the area, reaching a peak when we decided to use one of the others (Knight Frank. To be recommended.) They have been a leading agent in the area for the past 30 years. But they can't have spent the whole time browbeating their potential clients like this? My email software is playing up, so I can't actually get hold of them. When I can I'll put them up. Certainly they were sending strong threats that they would try and make the deal fail. Does anyone think that we could use an ombudsman on this subject?

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Esbjorn Svensson

The death of Esbjorn was a real shock. I was lucky and privileged to get to know him in the days when he was just beginning to get known in the UK (between 1999 and 2003). I recall spending several late nights/early mornings at the Pizza Express! And Esbjorn had a modesty and a great memory of all those whom he had contact with. Having lost some of the connection with the band, as they moved onwards and upwards, and my work with ACT having ended, I suddenly got a phone call from Esbjorn after a gap of several years, and then met him, just for a short time, a few months later during a sound check at the Barbican.
The band, and Esbjorn in particular, always generated a special contact with each and every person who heard his music, either live or on recordings. And their music evolved steadily and subtly. This is something unique. And they kept the quality of sound and performance to perfection. It is no surprise that Ake Linton was the fourth member of the band. This ability is something very very rare.
Even their covers were effective. I recall taking "From Gagarin's Point Of View" into the Jazz on 3 offices along with a whole selection of other ACT albums in 1999. It was the one that they picked out from the cover alone! The only group that I have come across that approaches the reverence that the fans have is with The Necks.
It was an ambition of mine to bring them to the Vortex to play. Unfortunately that will now never come to pass.
Wishing his family, friends and fans long life.

Monday, May 26, 2008

BBC Jazz Awards 2008

Very exciting and a privilege that I have been nominated for a BBC Jazz Award for services to jazz. Also it's good that I can vote for some of those nominated as part of an "industry panel" But...
The voting form says that "you are NOT allowed to vote for artists in whom you have a professional or personal interest". So I have had to leave the whole form blank!! Of course, I can't vote for myself or Christine Tobin as best vocalist since Babel has funded her album. However, I also feel that, as a Vortex director and creditor, it is impossible for me to vote for musicians who play at the Vortex regularly. Since if they perform and are successful then it helps the club to repay my loan. Indeed all those nominated for Rising Star, Best Instrumentalist and other for Best Vocalist are regulars at the Vortex.
Clearly the BBC is nervous about any voting nowadays, with all the shenanigans over phone votes. But they should surely be a bit more flexible for the voting for other people.
Or am I being too cautious?
My voting form is about to go up on the Babel web site, so you can see that I have not compromised my integrity.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Radio vs Herbie Hancock

Yesterday we had a double announcement. On the one hand, Herbie Hancock with his Joni Mitchell album won the main Grammy. On the other, GCap announced the closure of theJazz, its digital radio station. John L Walters in the Guardian hit the nail on the head, by highlighting the juxtaposition of success and perceived failure.
(Thejazz is a reason why I too have just bought a DAB radio. And I really enjoyed, just an hour ago, hearing Empirical followed by Thelonious Monk and Charlie Parker while having a coffee in my kitchen. Much more exciting that birdsong.)
The closure is though more to do with the pressure on GCap because it is vulnerable to being taken over than to do with the relative success of the station. The radio industry is behaving like old-fashioned smokestack industries. Trying to milk old technology for all the short-term cash that they can get.
Sad to say thejazz has been quite successful so far in terms of audience and reach, and I would congratulate Classic FM on launching it in a very effective manner. One reason is that jazz is a marvellous music for "pushing the envelope". And this has surely been proved by the results so far, which I presume have been done at relatively a low cost to the Jazz music and musicians will ensure that they make the best that they can of anything that they are given. For example, Evan Parker has been a master in finding new sounds out of the soprano saxophone. (I recall hearing this once at a talk, where someone explained that he uses jazz musicians to test new software and equipment, because they would sooner than anyone find out the limitations and where the potential is.)
Any investment in jazz though takes quite a time to come to success, and not many are patient enough with that. When I lent the Vortex money to reopen I had expected (hoped?) that the club could repay the debt within two years. That hasn't been the case. Nevertheless, the club should be glad for my patience, stubbornness and commitment, because it is now trading profitably on a monthly basis and the music level is getting higher and higher. I think that it proves that commercial success doesn't necessarily conflict with artistic quality. So I remain optimistic on that leve.
But thejazz's closure is not about the music and the baby has been thrown out with the bath water. As the Grammy for Herbie Hancock proves. It has been about whether DAB is a good format for digital. At least, Classic FM is keeping two hours of jazz late at night. And I hope that I would prefer to tune into that than Late Junction. Of course that depends on whether Classic FM is there in its current format next month....

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Back to Ronnie Scott's - and me on Thejazz

John Fordham in the Guardian makes supportive comments hoping about the return of Ronnie Scott's to being a true jazz venue. There are better signs there, certainly. Ronnie Scott's has not only been for many years the centre of the jazz universe in London, around which other venues "revolve". Fortunately, the Vortex and 606 have picked up this position for now.
It is a club which is as important for jazz WORLDWIDE as Covent Garden is to opera. When the Royal Opera House had a hard time, the Arts Council bent over backwards to ensure that it survived. Goodness knows how much it really cost. But when it comes to Ronnie's, apart from grumbles and the few articles in the press, there has been a stony silence from organisations like Jazz Services, which, according to its website, is supposed to provide a "voice for jazz". Let's give it some Strepsils so that it gets its voice back.
In the mean time, we need to encourage the club, and hope that it re-emerges like a phoenix. If, in the mean time, it sometimes prices its audience out of the market, so be it. But the programme has to be generally consistent, and balanced. I know, from the contact I have on the Vortex programme, that there is a fine balance. Sometimes the music that one would like to hear there is just that bit too expensive, even by the matter of £100 or so.
We are short of venues for jazz at a level of the size of Ronnie's, something which seems to be not just a problem in London. The Spitz is gone, and the other venues are potentially "partial".

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Global warming can be fun!

It's really "unseasonal" at present - daffodils out, also camellias, crocuses and even a rhododendron. The magnolia in front of Kenwood House is coming on apace. I've even seen the first APPLE BLOSSOM(!) on a tree. And yet we are still not out of January. So, with the sun not yet high enough to warm things, it shows how warm the weather has been. I recall that we were nearly as advanced last year, but then a cold snap came in February.
Could it be the first of many such Januaries to come in the future, or is it just another one off?
Whatever, it certainly is great to be amazed every day by things being wrong and working out.
(A bit like jazz?)

Saturday, January 19, 2008

If you want to see how to run a music industry, look to jazz

On the one hand, the people involved in jazz are really stupid. The chance of survival as a musician or as someone trying to eke out a living as a promoter, record label or similar are slim. At an informal lunch hosted by the Vortex yesterday, one thing that came up is how low fees and incomes can be. Have been. And still are.
Nevertheless, the thing to note is that it survives and, in many ways, is thriving. We don't get the range of articles such as those about EMI which dominate the online blogs and newspapers daily at present. The Vortex gets mentioned in the preview section as having gigs to go to, or gets reviews in the arts section. In the phrase "music industry", the word "music" should take precedence over the word "industry".
Is it quality of music or is it commercial success? Usually regarded as alternatives for one another, many jazz albums and musicians clearly have the former - I am proud of the quality of all the Babel albums - and certainly the most successful jazz albums of all time have both. Look at Kind of Blue of the Cologne Concert.
But from a point of view of survival jazz is up there. And surely one should look at a label like ECM as a model. Great music, for the most part at least, long-term commitment to many of its artists, and a back catalogue second to none. Manfred Eicher has a shrewdness which leads to certain frissons with musicians. I have heard many, and can relate a few on a person-to-person basis if you want. A mild way of how he winds up people to create tension, but also affectionate, is from some David Torn interviews on youtube.

The range of jazz on the label is still incredibly diverse. At the Vortex last weekend, we had a hell of a contrast. Andy Sheppard preparing for a new album, David Torn's Prezens creating a rock jazz improv with Tim Berne, Tom Rainey and Craig Taborn, and Matthew Bourne, in trio with Dave Kane and Steven Davis, also getting ready to record with Annette Peacock. He has been able to create viable commercial successors to Keith Jarrett, Kenny Wheeler and their like. Perhaps an ECM doesn't quite have the full quality seal that it had 10 years ago, but still worthwhile. Meanwhile, I understand that classical and other "non jazz" now take up over half of the new releases annually.
ECM is one of several models of which to be proud. Siggi Loch of ACT, a protege of the Erteguns, Alan Bates, originally Black Lion and now Candid. And then those small mavericks like Leo Feigin of Leo Records. And so on. Passion and a long-term view drive them on. And on. And on. If you look to the short-term bottom line, as I understand the shops are doing too much, nothing will appear. (It so disappoints me that the Dune catalogue, with such a great foundation in terms of Soweto Kinch and his ilk, is still so thin after 10 years. Come on Gary. Go for it, Janine.)
I like to think that Babel has created something important too, with a lot of imperfections in methodology that I don't want to discuss here. I have the biggest release schedule coming up ever for the first half of 2008, Outhouse, Bourne Davis Kane, Big Air, Christine Tobin, Phil Robson, Big Air, Paula Rae Gibson. The complete range of music all loosely linked by the word "jazz".
The bigger labels don't know how to handle the opportunity that they are given when releasing Acoustic Ladyland (on V2). I understand that their V2 album, Skinny Grin, didn't do much better commercially than Last Chance Disco, despite what must have been an outlay much, much higher. A squandered opportunity, similarly with Polar Bear. I would have hoped that the move to a bigger label would have provided a great showcase for this music.
By the way, on the EMI front, I hope that they look towards their jewel of Blue Note and Bruce Lundvall, to show a direction. A back catalogue second to none, as shown by listening to Jamie Cullum on thejazz as I write this, new multimillion sellers like Norah Jones and money reinvested in new stars of the future like Robert Glasper.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Which is more "risky" - an album by Beth Rowley or Portico Quartet?

Something I don't understand from the way that major labels work is their attempt to play catch up and mimickry with each other. That certainly doesn't chime in with what I can recall of portfolio theory when I worked as an economist. In that, you invest in a range of stocks, with a small amount in high risk, high return.
But what record companies seem to be doing at the moment is compete with each other to sign vocalist upon vocalist. Trying to have them follow in the steps of Amy Winehouse recently, but without the extra drug and behaviour "baggage". Each is quite an expensive "investment". It seems ironic that it is left to the small labels, such as Babel, to spend its (my) money on higher risk artists - more creative and less likely to sell fast. Even if the actual absolute amount spent on, say, releasing an album like Knee Deep In The North Sea is a fraction of that spent on Beth Rowley, in terms of the percentage amount that Babel has in total available to spend it is high -probably 10% of my annual budget. Certainly, I have noticed that Portico Quartet is now number 1 in the HMV jazz chart, and I can confirm that it has nothing to do with any payments for racking space to HMV. It also means that we can make a profit much quicker than the majors can. We are also much more flexible
Perhaps the major labels have a problem of high fixed costs (not just "flowers and fruit" or their powder equivalents which alone totalled £20,000 a month at EMI). Staff overheads mean that the actual cost of recording an album is low relative to the marketing, and admin costs. Also that the corporate machine is much slower.
Is it "safer" to release vocalist number 36? And to push her hard, so as to dilute the quality out there, such as Babel's own Christine Tobin or Paula Rae Gibson because one doesn't get the chance to hear them away from venues such as the Vortex. Surely it's safer to spend a fraction and get albums of the quality of Polar Bear's Held On The Tips Of Fingers into the stores. Which didn't make incredible sums of money for Babel, once one paid for manufacture, copyright and royalties, but certainly has made a profit on a lower level of sales. Meanwhile, an album such as Billy Jenkins' Songs Of Praise Live! will give me a lot of pleasure for a relatively low outlay and have a much more important long-term importance. (By the way, when Babel started, there was discussion with Polygram (the predecessor of Universal) to release the work of Billy. They were a bit frightened, though Wulf Muller, still one of the heads there, is a great fan. The album finally came out as Suburbia. Have a listen and let us know if you think that it's a better thing to release than some of the other stuff appearing on UCJ.)