Little labels that make a very big sound

Britain's jazz independents are producing some exciting music - and what's more, they are finding that quality pays, says Alex Webb
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The Independent Culture

Say the words "indie label" in music circles and most people will think of skinny kids thrashing away in gloomy guitar bands. But there is another indie scene which is producing some of the most varied, sophisticated and exciting contemporary music around: Britain's tiny independent jazz labels.

Say the words "indie label" in music circles and most people will think of skinny kids thrashing away in gloomy guitar bands. But there is another indie scene which is producing some of the most varied, sophisticated and exciting contemporary music around: Britain's tiny independent jazz labels.

Like deep-sea fish barely affected by the raging storms on the surface, these record companies care little for the takeovers and mergers of the whale-like music corporations, the struggles with sharks such as Napster and Gnutella. They are labels like Provocateur, which next week begins a week's residency at London's Pizza Express Jazz Club showcasing almost its entire roster of acts.

Composer Colin Towns set up Provocateur to release a record he was making with his Mask Orchestra. Label manager Jane Lindsey recalls, "We thought this is silly, we've got the beginnings of an independent label here and we want to use it. So in the spring of 1998 we signed Andy Sheppard and we made the album Learning To Wave, which sold thousands and thousands."

Saxophonist Andy Sheppard - one of Britain's few bankable contemporary jazz musicians - has been with bigger labels, but feels at home with Provocateur: "It's that family thing," he says, "It's something I always wanted to do, to be part of a kind of arthouse label. Island, Verve, Enja, ECM, I've played on them all, but I feel really close to this label."

"It's about making quality records with quality musicians and never, ever, compromising our belief in that music," says Lindsey. And in spite of the gravity-defying economics of jazz, it seems that this attitude can pay off: "You know that when you're making a jazz record, the chances of getting your money back in the first round of sales is slim. However, you know it will keep selling, as long as you adhere to your ethos of making quality products."

Janine Irons of Dune Records has a similar philosophy: "One of the most important decisions we made from the start was to make sure everything is quality, we're not cutting corners, and it's paying off." Irons started Dune with her partner, bandleader Gary Crosby, once the bass-player with Courtney Pine. Dune's predominantly black roster of J-Life, Nu-Troop and saxophonist Denys Baptiste has already attracted a slew of awards. "Denys got the MOBO award for best jazz act, the Mercury album of the year, and the British Jazz Award," recalls Irons. "We're very small - it's just Gary and myself, so there are physical limits to what we can do. But we're very pleased at the way things are progressing - we're still here and we're actually recouping."

Dune represent a kind of tough, urban modern jazz which grew out of Britain's Eighties jazz revival. "Our mission is really to highlight young British talent, particularly from the Jazz Warriors community, and to promote the creation of new jazz music - as opposed to just doing remakes of standards." Irons is judging the next move with care: "For the moment we've got the people that we want. We think [pianist] Robert Mitchell is hot stuff, and he's next - we'll be recording him in September and releasing it in the spring."

Another bass player, Malcolm Crease, is behind Audio-B which records many older and more established figures, including Cleo Laine: "The Cleo Laine album is the best seller so far," says Crease. "I've worked with Cleo for 10 ten years, and when she and John Dankworth came to me and said they'd come to the end of a contract and would I like to record them, I was delighted."

Crease had spent so much time in studios as a session musician that by 1990 he regarded recording his own albums as a logical next step. "They're all British artists. I feel that our jazz artists are world-class and don't get the recording opportunities that American players do. I like working with these people and I believe the music should be heard."

Talking to Crease about his artists' roster - which includes saxophonist Tony Coe, award-winning young pianist Kate Williams and Matt Wates' superb hard-bop sextet - it is striking to hear words not much heard in the music industry these days - words like "love": "We make this music because we love it," says Crease. "We don't make the albums just to be commercial, jazz musicians aren't prepared to do that. In fact if it had been my aim to make money, I probably wouldn't have recorded jazz at all."

It's an attitude shared by Paul Jolly, who set up 33 Records in the same year. "It's about going back to the old spirit of A&R really, seeing an artist and wanting to help them put on gigs, finding new ways of presenting them, getting them recorded."

The label has now recorded singers Anita Wardell and Tina May - "Tina's one of our best sellers" - and saxophonists from veteran tenor Don Weller to up-and-coming Theo Travis, whose Secret Island is one of the most relaxed and melodic jazz albums of recent years.

"The great thing about Theo is his compositional strength, which young musicians don't always have," explains Jolly. "He writes good tunes." His 33 Records grew out of a Luton jazz club of the same name. "There were artists coming through the venue that didn't have recording contracts and didn't have a chance getting contracts with large companies. There was a niche there going begging."

It's a niche that would go on begging if it wasn't for small entrepreneurs, Alan Bates of Candid records believes: "There's not enough money in it for the big labels. They're all run by accountants."

Bates has already been round this particular block a few times, having also owned Seventies jazz label Black Lion records. When he bought the rights to the American Candid label - and with it recording masters by jazz greats like Charles Mingus, Cecil Taylor and Coleman Hawkins - he might have made a tidy living from re-releases. But he felt compelled to sign up and record the music he heard around him.

"London is the most happening city in the universe - it has been for two or three years - and there's a very creative feel about the place," he says. "It's demographically much more mixed than New York and there's a freer exchange among people of all backgrounds."

Emblematic of this mix is Candid's piano wunderkind Alex Wilson, whose album titles - Afro-Saxon and Anglo-Cubano - indicate his multiple musical loyalties. "Our other label is Big City," says Bates, "which reflects jazz and jazz-based music from London, but it's more club-oriented. It's a new direction for us and who knows how far it'll go. This is a metropolis over-full of talent."

Refreshing words, after a couple of years of stories about a music industry in crisis. And it all sounds a bit unlike jazz, just a bit optimistic for a music known for its mordant sense of humour, its sense of disaffection - a music, moreover, that has been declared dead at least once a decade since the 1920s. Frank Zappa must have been right after all when he said, "Jazz isn't dead - it just smells funny."


'Provocateur at the Pizza': Pizza Express, W1 (020 7437 9595), Wednesday to 13 September