Babel Label: New Songs from the Tower of Sound
AAJ: What is the label's approach to packaging and design? You have worked with visual artist Gee Vaucher. Is there a particular visual style you aim for?
OW: The packaging should be reasonably priced. So we now have found out that CD packs can look more like gatefolds. The artists tend to work through the designers they like best and who properly reflect the music. We started working with Gee because of a connection with Christine Tobin. But subsequently this has meant that I have grown close connections with the Crass scene, such as poet Penny Rimbaud.
AAJ: Could you say something about your release schedule and some of your up-coming projects? What kind of music are you excited about at the moment?
OW: The Babel release schedule has picked up dramatically over the past few months. It is probably due to the lack of other outlets for much music to be released in this country, but also because there are a number of projects that excite meand hence Babel. They include: Dice Factory (Tom Challenger, George Fogle, Tom Farmer, Jon Scott); Vole (Roland Ramanan, Roberto Sassi, Javier Carmona), Rae Forrest Project (Paula Rae Gibson, Mike Flynn); Now's The Time Vol. 3 (compilation of French/Luxembourg jazz by DJ Kevin Le Gendre); Barbacana (Kit Downes, Sylvain Darrifourcq, James Allsopp, Adrien Dennefeld); Tierkreis (reworking of Stockhausen's work by Bruno Heinen); Rachel Musson, Liam Noble, Mark Sanders' trio; Moss Freed Project; and Eye Of A Blue Dog (Rory Simmons, Terje Evensen, Elizabeth Nygaard).
To an extent, they show a consolidation of some of the music that we have been releasing over the past years. There's further work with musicians whom I have worked with before, but also a few that I have been aware of for a while, such as Paula Rae Gibson, Bruno Heine. I like the fact that many are part of a total desire to get music better known through playing as well as recording. We have moved away from the "project"/commission concept, whereby a period of rehearsal is followed by one or two concerts at festivals and then that's virtually it. Though some have great concepts behind them, such as Tierkreis or Moss Freed, where the guitarist has commissioned short writings stimulated by the music.
I also like that there are a few more albums where musicians are sucking in collaborators based abroadthough they might in fact have also studied or lived here for a few years or who feel an affinity to the scene here.
There is a great desire now over here for musicians to move more seamlessly between styles which might have been more separated, like composed versus improvised versus pop/rock. Musicians are getting known for playing outside what they are usually associated with. That happened with my releases by Amit Chaudhuri, who is known as a writer, or Gannets, where Fyfe Dangerfield is known as a member of the art pop group Guillemots. Liam Noble is known here more as a pianist in the purer jazz scene, and yet he is now the favored London pianist for Mary Halvorson, Ingrid Laubrock and Peter Evans for their free improv stuff. Perhaps it's to say that I like music involving improvisation and challenge.
There's not only challenge and improvisation involved when it comes to releases on Babel, but certainly also pleasure, and selecting a bunch out of the many excellent releases is a tough task, but here follows a sample of some of the treasures found in Oliver Weindling's tower of sound.
When the Crowds Have Gone
On his website, eclectic bluesman Billy Jenkins describes himself as: "Guitarist, composer, bandleader, performer, humanist and funeral officiant." This unorthodox description is actually a quite apt characterization of a man who has been notoriously hard to pin down. Jenkins is a true original, and in that way he fits perfectly with Babel's open-minded approach to music, and it's no coincidence that the two have enjoyed a long-standing musical relationship, spanning eight albums that are as quirky and spellbinding as the man himself.
Jenkins' career on Babel coincided with the label's own beginning in 1994. At that time, he released his album Entertainment USA, an ambitious concept-album that took different American personalities like Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash as inspiration. Jenkins uses an A-list band, The Voice of God Collective, with several Babel alumni, like saxophonist Mark Lockheart, pianist Huw Warren and bassist Steve Watts, and together they create a countrified funky stew of orchestral sounds that constitutes Jenkins' own idiosyncratic journey into the American heartland.
Entertainment USA uses a large ensemble, complete with choir and several horns, but When the Crowds Have Gone (Babel, 2005) is a more intimate affair with Jenkins only accompanied by bassist Watts and violinist Dylan Bates. Here, his ability as a guitarist and singer/songwriter really comes to the fore on a crisp sounding recording where the bluesman reveals his tales of poverty, loss and loneliness. It's all wrapped in a warm humor that is reflected in a song about the annoying sound of a pizza delivery, as well as in titles such as "Sitting on the Dock of the Ebay."
With his instrumental prowess, deep sense of tradition, experimentalism and quirky humor, Jenkins sometimes comes across like a singing version of John Fahey, but he is really a man who is entirely his own, and it's no bad start to experience him close-up on this wonderful release.
The influence from blues, country and Cajun music is most strongly felt on releases by Billy Jenkins and a little gem in the Babel catalog, Disorder On The Border (Babel, 2006), where the vocal trio of fiddler Charlie Hart, guitarist Gary Rickard and accordionist Geraint Watkins play their own authentic version of old-time Americana. But the influence from roots-music is also apparent in more subtle ways; for instance, the weeping pedal steel and lush violin work of Stuart Hall sublimely colors the music on drummer Steve Arguelles' album Circuit (Babel, 2006).
The opener, "The Wind-Up," is a grooving piece where bassist Steve Watts together with Arguelles lay down a funky rhythm that propels the tune forward, while brother and saxophonist Julian Arguelles plays some enchanting melodic lines in tandem with Hall and accordionist Huw Warren, who adds just the right amount of Cajun spice to the tune. Warren steps into the spotlight on the ballad "Votation" where he plays a strong intro before the rest of the band enters, with Julian Arguelles delivering a well-rounded solo, touching on all aspects of his instrument, from smooth, long lines to shrill outbursts.
Throughout, Steve Arguelles shows himself as an accomplished leader, who is able to give room for all the players. While sophisticated in his playing, he is in no way domineering, and perhaps his influence as a drummer is most poignantly felt in the careful programming of the album where a wide rhythmical canvas comes into play, ranging from waltzes and ballads to mid-tempo grooves. However, true to the spirit of Americana, the most domineering forms are the slower, ballad-like songs where the dusty rhythms are blown into shape on what amounts to a delicately cinematic release.
Julian Arguelles has also recorded as a leader for Babel and while his recording with an octet, Skull View (Babel, 2006), shows him as a composer and leader in a larger setting, with plenty of room for sophisticated swing and highly energetic playing, his duo recording with brother Steve on Soundscapes is naturally a more pared-down affair. What the two records have in common is the composition "Las Ramblas," which is played in two notably different versions.
On Skull View the composition is introduced by Steve Watts' understated bass before the melody is blown through the aerial charts of the orchestra and guitarist Mike Walker plays a distinctive solo that polyphonically plays with the theme and soulfully bends the notes of the strings. It is a painting of sound where the drums of Martin France mainly function as coloration.
On Scapes the composition is divided into two parts: "Las Ramblas I" and "Las Ramblas II." Paradoxically, there's more rhythmical energy on display on "Las Ramblas I" than on the version for octet. Steve Arguelles' steady handclaps propels a rhythm over which the saxophone plays a web of melodies and later it evolves into to the theme on "Las Ramblas II," where the saxophonist acts as both accompanist and soloist, with the saxophone played in two layers.
Both of his releases on Babel show Julian Arguelles as a highly skilled improviser and composer whose sense of detail covers the dense structures of a large group and the possibility and space of the duo. But what is most fascinating is to hear how he is able to turn the two worlds around on "Las Ramblas." The minimal setting of the duo is enhanced by complex layers of horn and the larger canvas of the octet is explored into detail, with the boisterous rhythms residing into the background. The musical forms truly come alive and are seen anew in the hands of Arguelles.
Tom Arthurs and Richard Fairhurst
Postcards From Pushkin
The brothers Arguelles have a unique sense of musical communication. Another telepathic duo on Babel consists of trumpeter Tom Arthurs and pianist Richard Fairhurst. One of the compositions on Arthur's album Centripede (Babel, 2003) is called "Pollock" and like the painter Jackson Pollock, Arthurs could be called an abstract expressionist. While mentioning words like "abstract" and "expressionism" perhaps will scare some listeners away, Arthurs has a strong lyrical bent that makes his playing accessibleeven to those not normally interested in experimental music.
Arthurs' lyricism thrives in the partnership with pianist Richard Fairhurst, whose crystalline chords and sense of space are perfectly suited for the warm tones of Arthurs' trumpet and flugelhorn.
The duo has created their own tone-poems on Mesmer (Babel, 2007), but the poetry of the music becomes even more tangible on Postcards From Pushkin (Babel, 2012). Here, the duo uses the poetry of Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837) as a stepping stone to artworks of sound.
On compositions like "Silence" and "Darkness," the two exquisitely explore the timbre of the instruments, playing in the space between silence and sound, and letting the notes form themselves out of the air like illuminating letters written on a blank page. Fairhurst pauses, moves the tangents between harmony and dissonance, creating a lyrical mood that never becomes sentimental, while Arthurs' flugelhorn cuts like lines of light through the darkness of the melancholy chords.
Poetry is often connected with the romantic idea of a singular artist, but while Postcards From Pushkin is based on the works of a romantic poet, there isn't anything romantic about the aesthetics of the record. The work isn't the result of one, but two brilliant minds, and the musical postcards they write are certainly worth receiving.
Penny Rimbaud / Crass Aganda
Poetry was an indirect source of inspiration on Postcards From Pushkin in a process where words became music. Somehow, this process is turned upside down on poet Penny Rimbaud's How?, where improvised music helps to bring about poetryall in the spirit of beat poet Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997) whose famous poem "Howl" is hinted at in the title.
Almost all of the content on the album, six tracks in all, is completely improvised, but the opener is a tender a cappella version of the standard "Brother Can You Spare Me a Dime?" sung beautifully by Christine Tobin, who is accompanied by bowed bass and moaning saxophone at the end of the tune. The core of the album is a poem by Penny Rimbaud where he riffs on the rhythm and words of Ginsberg's "Howl." In the midst of honking saxophones, rolling drums and groovy bass patterns, Rimbaud chants his poetic visions, clearly inspired by the players around him.
The mood is at times hypnotic, other times energetic. The force of life is conveyed in a stream of words and sounds. It works because there is a structure, which comes from melodies and rhythms that pop out of the air like flowers from the ground, but Ginsberg's own diction also haunts Rimbaud like a friendly ghost. The result is a steaming session of jazz poetry. Not poetry with jazz or jazz with poetry. This is a documentation of a concert that Ginsberg and his cohorts almost certainly would have enjoyed, screaming: "Go! Go! Go!" out into the blue city night.
Romance and Revolution
Irish-born singer Christine Tobin appears as a guest on How?, but she is in fact one of the most prominent artists on the label and has released a string of seven magnificent albums. Blessed with a beautiful and nuanced voice, capable of expressing a wide range of emotions, Tobin interprets her own and others' songs with a natural intensity, far from the showy vocal pyrotechnics of some singers.
While every Tobin album is worth exploring, Romance and Revolution is a particularly good entry because it mixes the singer's originals with a superb choice of covers, including Brian Wilson's "God Only Knows" and Bob Dylan's "Shelter From The Storm." The former is interpreted as a slow ballad, with guitarist Phil Robson's mournful twang and Tobin's smoky voice in perfect tandem. The latter, however, receives a radical makeover and is transformed into a groovy piece of soul-jazz, with bassist Dave Whitford and percussionist Thebe Lipere anchoring the rhythm.
Tobin knows how to groove with her voice, but as composer, singer and interpreter, she is at heart a lyrical artist and this also underlined on Sailing to Byzantium (Trail Belle, 2012) that is dedicated entirely to the poetry of Irish poet W.B. Yeats (1865-1939). On Romance and Revolution she translates the poetry of Paul Muldoon into song, giving "Horses" all the airy and pastoral elegance it needs to create a sweet sense of musical magic. However, as fragile as she can be, Tobin can also be down-to-earth and gritty when she sings the blues with a grainy voice, as she does on "Young Woman's Blues."
Romance and Revolution is a well-rounded portrait of one of the most exciting and original singers that the British jazz scene can offer, and her work is so consistent that anyone who dives into her rich catalog will be rewarded.
Guitarist Phil Robson has graced many of Christine Tobin's albums, but he is also a member of the vibrant post-bop group Partisans, whose tight balance between tradition and experiment can be experienced on Sourpuss (Babel, 2000 ), Max (Babel, 2006) and By Proxy (Babel, 2009). Besides that, he is also a leader in his own right and has released three albums on Babel, among them, Six Strings & the Beat (Babel, 2007), which finds him in the company of a string quartet. Impish (Babel, 2006) is a bit more conventional in its line-upfeaturing guitar, bass, drums and pianobut it isn't less intriguing.
The album changes between the format of trio and quartet and the opener, "Lapdog," finds Robson in heated interplay with drummer Asaf Sirkis and bassist Dave Whitford. Sirkis is explosive as he hits the cymbals and toms and makes them roar in the midst of Robson's breakneck riffs. Just as thing are cooking, the trio slows completely down on "Iris," Robson changing to acoustic guitar and playing a pretty melody. Then pianist John Taylor enters on "Wandy's Place (For Hector)" and, surprisingly, adds a rollicking Latin touch to his trademark lyricism.
While Christine Tobin joins in on the guitarist's other releases, she is physically absent on Impish, but she is nevertheless present in spirit with the ballad "You Draw the Line," which receives a deep interpretation from the group, with Taylor gently exploring lyrical motifs while Robson's hushed tones on the acoustic guitar adds to the warmth and intimacy of the music.
As a player, Phil Robson is immensely versatile and the guitarists that have inspired him are a testimony to this: Barney Kessel, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Kevin Eubanks, Bill Frisell, Pat Martino, John Scofield, Peter Bernstein and Kenny Burrell. In the midst of all these influences, Phil Robson has found his own voice and is a strong presence on Babel and the British jazz scene.
Infinite Riches In A Little Room
There are many charismatic musicians on the Babel label, but one of the most original is accordionist and pianist Huw Warren, who pops up on records by Billy Jenkins, Christine Tobin and Steve Arguelles, but Warren is as fascinating alone as he is in the company of others. This is evident on listening to his solo piano album Infinite Riches In A Little Room (Babel, 2001), where his encyclopedic knowledge of music shines through. Warren is just as much at home with classical music as he is with avant-garde jazz and bop, Brazilian pop and electronic composition and all his influences melt into a singular expression that glows when he sits alone in front of the piano and explores its infinite riches.
Half of the tracks on the album are inspired by John Dowland's composition "Lachrymae," but never frozen in a timeframe. Instead, Warren weaves threads of past and present music together, uses well-known snippets and transforms them into his own language, while still being aware of the traditions on which he rests. The sound of the piano is never dull. It becomes a wonderful box whose strings and wood can be tapped, plugged, caressed and modified electronically to make familiar and estranged sounds. Warren is even able to make the instrument dance, as he does on Hermeto Pascoal's "Xibaba," which is as bright and poppy as it is avant-garde. Here, he employs a strange brew of prepared piano sounds and sunny melody.
Simply said, Infinite Riches In A Little Room is the sound of experiments and creativity, but it isn't introverted navel-gazing. While constantly seeking new forms and sounds, Warren nevertheless keeps track of the forms and lets them metamorphose and not muddle, andmore importantthere is real emotional engagement to be found on this fresh take on the art of solo piano.
One of Huw Warren's many collaborators is saxophonist Mark Lockheart, with whom he made the album Duw A Wyr (Babel, 2005), where they gave superb backing to Welsh singer Lleuwan Steffan. As some of the artists on Babel, including Julian and Steve Arguelles, Lockheart had been a member of the experimental big band, Loose Tubes.
Another important artistic collective that has contributed a lot of players to the records on Babel is the F-IRE Collective (Fellowship for Integrated Rhythmic Expression), whose aesthetic ideas have challenged the conservative notion of jazz. Bassist Tom Herbert, drummer Sebastian Rochford and saxophonist Pete Wareham, together with Lockheart, formed the first incarnation of Polar Bear, which recorded Dim Lit.
On its second album on Babel, Held On The Tips Of Fingers (Babel, 2005), the band delves into electronics and merges it with their complex compositions, but Dim Lit already has many of the core virtues of the group: the postmodern mix of genres united in tunes that are still distinctively jazzy, and it thrives on the balance between cool, melodic grooves and energetic bursts of improvisation.
An even more radical deconstruction of genres can be found in Rochford's other band Acoustic Ladyland, whose two albums on Babel Camouflage and Last Chance Disco are both delightfully anarchistic. You could say that if Rochford's two bands were persons, Polar Bear would be the cool cat in the pin-striped suit while Acoustic Ladyland would be the weird cousin with his hair on fire.
Besides F-IRE, another collective that has found its way into the ranks of Babel is LIMA (Leeds Improvised Music Association). TrioVD and Bilbao Syndrome are both bands associated with LIMA and if the music of Polar Bear and Acoustic Ladyland is a gentle pad on the dusty shoulders of jazz, then these two bands represent an aural slap in the face that definitely will scare some listeners away.
Both TrioVD and Bilbao Syndrome take important cues from progressive rock, electronic music and free jazz, but the most strongly felt presence is heavy metal. Bilbao Syndrome is more likely to find fans in the metal camp than with jazz people, but it's too easy to dismiss the group as a heavy metal gimmick. Instead, it really caters to people that don't care about genres, but want to be challenged aesthetically.
Singer Andrew Plummer moans, growls, screams and sighs through a series of compositions (numbered I-V). The music is both ugly and grand in its uncompromising abyss of sound, and is also rhythmically complex.
The cover depicts a bare tree standing in the mountains, and the colors are only black and white. In a way the music is just as bleak, but it isn't primitive. More than anything, this is music that demonstrates the wide range of Babel. It is indeed rare to find a jazz label that welcomes the sounds of old-time music and blues and avant-garde metal, and Babel is a treasure in the landscape of jazz, a place where there is room for new sounds and songs.
Tracks and Personnel
When the Crowds Have Gone
Tracks: In My Bones; I Like Rain; Get the Poison Out; If I Were A Lollipop Man; The Tide Is Out; Blues Is Calling Me; When Money's Really Tight; Come Round And See Me; Sitting On The Dock Of The Ebay; Trouble In Mind; Everything's Too Fast; This Room; Cry Your Eyes Till They're Red.
Personnel: Billy Jenkins: guitar, vocal; Steven Watts: double bass; Dylan Bates: violin.
Tracks: The Windup; Penkiss; Votation; Backwater Babble; Explosions; Circuit; Caraqueb; The Peacocks; Duckin'; Hati, Hati; Pigshead Copanitsa (aka poisoned umbrella dance).
Personnel: Steve Arguelles: drums; Julian Arguelles: alto and baritone saxophone; Stuart Hall: violin, guitar, pedal steel; Huw Warren: accordion; Steve Watts: double bass.
Tracks: Sectioned; It's An Ant Life; Intro To The 3J's; The 3J's; First Wessex; Fat Cats; Fasa; The Tide; Louder Than Words; Intro To Hix; The Peaks; Cookiegate; 13-Cd 318; The Owl; Las Ramblas Part I; Las Ramblas Part 2.
Personnel: Julian Arguelles: saxophone, bass clarinet, flutes, recorders, keyboards & handclaps; Steve Arguelles: percussion and drums.
Postcards From Pushkin
Tracks: The Flirt; Given Up; Silence; Solo; The Judge; Darkness; Half-Milord.
Personnel: Tom Arthurs: flugelhorn; Richard Fairhurst: piano.
Tracks: Brother Can You Spare Me A Dime?; How. Part One; How. Part Two; How. Part Three; How. Part Four; Outro.
Personnel: Christine Tobin: voice; Penny Rimbaud: voice; Louise Elliot: tenor saxophone, flute; Ed Jones: tenor saxophone, bass-clarinet; Mika Myllari: trumpet; Davide Mantovani: upright bass, Paul Clavis: drums.
Romance and Revolution
Track Listing: Horses; God Only Knows; Black and Blue; He's Not Anyone; Shelter from the Storm; Go Down Easy; Muse of the Blues; Young Woman's Blues; Brandy and Scars; Can't Help Lovin' that Man; My Boat's Ready; Fragile Dance.
Personnel: Christine Tobin: voice, piano; Phil Robson: guitar; Dave Whitford: double bass; Thebe Lipere: percussion; Steve Arguelles: drums.
Tracks: Lapdog; Iris; Wandy's Place (For Hector); Gone Fishing; Reptilian; Impish; Chomping; You Draw the Line; Bug Eyes.
Personnel: Phil Robson: guitar, saz; Dave Whitford: double bass; Asaf Sirkis: drums; John Taylor: piano.
Infinite Riches In A Little Room
Tracks: Mash; Moose The Mooche; LachrymeTeares; LachrymeDoth Promise; LachrymeUnfit Guests; Lachryme Musicke Weeps; LachrymeShe Alwayes; LachrymeShowers Of Harmonie; LachrymeBee Metamorphosed; LachrymeTrue Tears; Xibaba; Quiet (r) Riot; All Dancing; Infinite Riches; Loopy; Like Someone In Love.
Personnel: Huw Warren: piano, keyboards, samples.
Tracks: Heavy Paws on the Purple Floor; Not Here, Not Near; Eve's Apple; Polar Bear Standing and Ready; Urban Kilt; Snow; Underneath You Can See Too Much; The Shapes in the Clouds Aren't Always Happy; New Dark Park; Wild Horses.
Personnel: Sebastian Rochford: drums; Tom Herbert: bass; Mark Lockheart: tenor saxophone; Pete Wareham: tenor saxophone; Julia Biel: vocal.
Tracks: I; II; III; IV; VI; V.
Personnel: Matthew Bourne: keyboards; Chris Sharkey: guitar; Chris Bussey: drums; Colin Sutton: bass; Andrew Plummer: vocal.
Courtesy of Oliver Weindling