Record labels are, in essence, an outlet, a means for production. They are not the paint or the painter but merely the paint factory. They aren't the music, just the medium of delivery.
But the good ones are more than that. They engender emotional attachment. They come to represent their times. The orange and black of Impulse! and the sleek designs of Blue Note helped to define the innovations of American jazz in the '50s-60s. And in a similar way, Incus did much to package and characterize the British free improvisation movement that developed in the '70s and carries on to this day.
Derek Bailey, Evan Parker, Tony Oxley and others in London, along with artistic compatriots in Amsterdam and Berlin, were crafting the first distinctly European responses to the African-American improvised music, seeking to create something that was based in their culture, their musical heritagea free improvisation freed of the blues.
It was Oxley who met with some of the earliest commercial success (or backing in any event) with releases on the CBS label in 1969 and 1970, small group recordings that both featured Bailey and Parker. But the label passed on his third record. In 2000, he told writer Ben Watson, author of Derek Bailey and the Story of Free Improvisation, how that led to Incus' founding.
"The recording outlet was disappearingmany musicians were not being recorded at all," Oxley said. "I suggested to Derek we should start our own company. He agreed, but of course we needed money. A friend of mineMike Waltersoffered to finance the idea. To start if off we had a meeting. He stated he did not want to be involved in the running of the company but would be happy to finance it. So, we needed a third member. Evan Parker was invited to fill the spot. I left Incus for various reasons a few years later. Subsequently Evan Parker left. It's now run by Derek and Karen Brookman [Bailey passed in 2005]."
Through the '70s-80s and until moving into the digital age, Incus released 51 LPs, a 7" EP and even a reel-to-reel tape. Those years saw solo and group recordings led by Bailey, Oxley and Parker, as well as Barry Guy, Howard Riley, Kenny Wheeler and others. There was also a series of recordings documenting one of Bailey's most significant contributions, the "Company" nights, where musicians who often hadn't played together before were thrown together to find their way, often to wholly unpredictable results.
Parker's departure in 1987 left the label in Bailey's hands and caused what came to be seen as a sizable rift within the first generation of British free improvisers.
"People seem fascinated by the breakup of their musical/Incus relationship and seek a definitive reason or event," Brookman said in an email interview. "It's true that Evan's departure from Incus was acrimonious. Their collaboration produced a wealth of inventive music but by the mid '80s their time was up. It is all too common when people have an intense collaboration a time of 'burn out' often occurs."
Through the '90s and until his death on Christmas Day 2005, Incus became in large part an outlet for Bailey's work, a different model than the one under which it had been founded, but still a valuable asset for an artist as avid about new playing partners and situations as himself. The label was understandably quiet after Bailey's death, but his wife and business partner has been reactivating the effort. Brookman has long been a part of the operation and has recently overseen new releases (reissues and new titles), DVDs, a festival in London last month and two nights at Abrons Arts Center in Manhattan this month.
"I first heard Derek play in 1975 and had the opportunity to attend other concerts in the following years but we never met at that time," Brookman said. "In the early '80s a mutual friend, the percussionist Will Evans, asked me if I would be interested in working a couple of days a week for Incus. I began with various activities involved in the day-to-day running of a small label and assisting Derek with his annual Company events in London. A friendship grew and we found we worked well together. Our working partnership developed into a personal one and we began living together in 1984. I became increasingly involved with all aspects of Incus from that time including the designs of Incus LPs and then later CDs. Eventually Incus became a full time activity."