Jazz: the best new stuff thrives far from the majors

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The Independent Culture

Jazz being an art form which constantly requires change, and whose most celebrated practitioners are its innovators, there is no subset of the form which merits the term "indie". There may be pale-faced, greasy-haired youths playing jazz with gloomy expressions, but they are participating in an art form which does understand their difference.

But without the plethora of companies, often very tiny, that make up the independent jazz industry, the body of recorded jazz would be that of a prosperous, childless bachelor in late middle age. He's a man who's enjoyed a good career, the rewards of which sustain him as he buys another round of lunchtime drinks and regales his companions with well-worn tales of louche behaviour on and off the bandstand.

He has no living offspring, however, because the industry in which he toiled has no interest in young musicians any more. That industry continues to reap the profits from Count Basie compilations and remasters of Dexter Gordon albums. But only if they make some kind of artistic pact with the devil can those who play jazz now expect contracts with the big labels that were once the home to the giants.

It's a slight exaggeration, sure, and a few bona fide jazz musicians still win contracts with the record companies which have the pockets to promote artists. But they are few. Time and again stories appear which send a shiver through the jazz world. Not so long ago Atlantic shut its jazz division. Columbia, home to Miles Davis, ended its relationship with the illustrious Marsalis Brothers. And Verve, the label founded by that tireless campaigner for jazz, Norman Granz, decided to concentrate on easy-on-the-ear songbirds.

Quite what Art Blakey, whose Jazz Messengers' recordings were the epitome of the Blue Note sound, would have made of some of the pop fusion mush currently on the label, whose independence is long gone, doesn't bear contemplating. The independents have been jazz's saviour. They may not keep its younger proponents in the style of our ageing bachelor, but they have enabled the diversity of jazz in all its forms to continue to be preserved on disc.

A few have been so successful that the aura of the indie label no longer surrounds them. One barely thinks of Manfred Eicher's German label, ECM, as such. It is on their beautifully packaged recordings, after all, that one finds artists of the stature of Keith Jarrett, Jan Garbarek and Kenny Wheeler. So famous is the label that "the ECM sound" has become as widely used a shorthand as "Blue Note" once was. But the Edition of Contemporary Music remains under Eicher's hand, which is not guided by the short-term financial considerations of the majors.

Europe has long been strong in the indie field. Britain has several small operations, ranging from: Dune, home to Abram Wilson and Jazz Jamaica; Candid, whose founder, Alan Bates, has had success with more mainstream artists like Clare Teal and Jamie Cullum, as well as Kenny Barron and Bob Dorough; and Babel, whose low-key approach to marketing has not stopped signings such as Polar Bear receiving recognition beyond the hopes of most jazz players.

From the rural setting of Fordwich in Kent, Provocateur releases Guy Barker's recordings, while a stream of distinctly Scottish albums issue from the office of Caber Records in Edinburgh. Distribution deals can be done without sacrificing the artistic integrity of the independent label - a situation whose happiness is only marred by the minuscule size of the sections most CD stores devote to jazz.

But the advent of the CD and advances in recording technology have had other benefits, allowing even smaller labels to flourish. Andy Cleyndert continues to document live performances by Stan Tracey and other overlooked stalwarts of the British jazz scene, such as The New Couriers, on his Trio Records, while pianist Zoe Rahman is far from alone in setting up her own label to release work.

In North America, the market is so much bigger that companies can continue to describe themselves as "independent" even when their size seems to belie the term. Concord, for instance, owns many distinguished jazz labels, such as Prestige and Pablo, and can name Dianne Reeves, Sonny Rollins and Scott Hamilton among its artists.

The US also has its share of tiny labels, belonging to jazz festivals, or set up by small collectives. But the truth is that the divide between plucky independents and self-satisfied majors is not the same in jazz as it is in pop or rock. In jazz there is a greater sense that the artistic imperative should come first - a view not welcomed by the big labels who see the market's health in terms of dollars, not diversity. Those firms continue to amble on with a few whose names are guaranteed to produce reasonable sales, and others they can promote into "crossover" stars. The real scene happens elsewhere; and is to be found on the independents.