The kings of compilation

Sao Paulo post-punk, Tibetan chant, Jamaican ska... Soul Jazz is still the best of the 'best of' crowd, says Alasdair Lees
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The Independent Culture

Baker also talked one of the most illegally-sampled and wary punk/dance bands, all-girl ESG of New York, into releasing Step Off, their first studio album for 11 years.

So you've got to admire his latest idea. Can he put before the public the joys of sacred Tibetan chanting and Russian polyphonic singing? "For me to have an album of Tibetan monks coming out after an album of early acid house - that's heaven," Baker says, laughing.

Or folly, some might say, but they probably haven't read the notices of the compilations put out by Baker's label in the past 14 years. The Pop Group's Mark Stewart, who has released a new album, Kiss the Future, with the label, says Soul Jazz is "the equivalent of the City Lights anthologies: a seal of approval".

From its roots as a secondhand vinyl stall in Camden Market in the late Eighties, Soul Jazz has grown into one of the most successful British labels. Its shop on Broadwick St, Soho is "the best in London", says Radio 1's Gilles Peterson. Its Dynamite! compilations of vintage reggae are described by Chris Blackwell of Island Records as the "university of reggae".

Their reissues of everything from Chicago soul to civil rights-era free jazz and new releases of glitchy house and leftfield hip-hop are essential for regular customers such as Grant Marshall of Massive Attack. "The one thing I set out to do when I entered the music business was to release Studio One records in England," Marshall says. "I had dealings with Sir Coxsone, and I set about trying to do it... but I couldn't. It was impossible to get hold of Studio One stuff before Soul Jazz. And there's so much stuff, it's impossible to put your finger on it, especially since Sir Coxsone's death. There'll be stuff he didn't know he had."

Peterson adds: "Soul Jazz put out the best compilations. They've consistently done it, from the Studio One stuff to the free jazz stuff to the acid house compilations. As a reissue label, they're the best."

Baker tapped into the current post-punk renaissance before it went mainstream by releasing retrospectives featuring contemporary indie touchstones such as 23 Skidoo, This Heat and Dinosaur L.

Soul Jazz's magpie ethos, says Baker, is perhaps "a consequence of being able to pick up on trends in a way you maybe couldn't if you didn't have a shop in town, absorbing the things that come in. It's not that hard to click into the Zeitgeist - it's having your ear to the ground." This helps to attract people such as David Holmes, whose film scores blend old and new funk, jazz, latino and soul, to DJ at Soul Jazz's club nights, and draws in cult guests such as Jerry Dammers and Richard H Kirk.

"It's an odd thing to do commercially, but we have an agenda to try to connect every kind of music," Baker says. He cites Soul Jazz's recent album of Haitian voodoo music, Spirits of Life. "We were listening to Latin music, and then I got interested in Cuban music, some of which was religious. Then I found connections between Brazilian music and Haitian music. So we went out there and saw the religious context of music and it took on another dimension. It's amazing watching people getting possessed, seeing music have that kind of power."

Which brings us back to Baker's next big idea. "We spent a year inside Tibetan monasteries, recording Buddhist chanting. I've got about eight hours of it, but I want it to make sense. I want people to respond positively. There's also two albums of Georgian polyphonic singing we've recorded. I'm hoping to put both of them out this year."

Other pending releases this year include a "best of" from the Brazilian all-girl band As Mercenarias, one of the highlights of The Secret Life of the Savages, Soul Jazz's recent primer on Sao Paulo post-punk, and a new album by the soul singer KB, a star in South Africa.

"It's a treat to find this stuff, contextualise it and get people to hear things in a different way," Baker says. "You can relate to a Fifties jazz record as much as an electronic record made this year if you present it correctly. It's part of the fun of what we're trying to get away with."

'Studio One Lovers' and 'Microsolutions to Megaproblems' are out now on Soul Jazz