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Babel Label: New Songs from the Tower of Sound

Babel Label: New Songs from the Tower of Sound
Jakob Baekgaard By

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During the last decade, British jazz has been booming and London has become, once again, one of the jazz capitals of the world. To get a feel of what's happening, the place for live music is no longer Ronnie Scott's Jazz Club, but a place called The Vortex, directed by Oliver Weindling. Weindling is also the man behind the visionary Babel Label that has given voice to many of the new musicians who have popped up from the underground. Whether it has been the musicians from the British experimental big band Loose Tubes or musical collectives like F-IRE, Loop or LIMA, Weindling has had his ears to the ground and discovered the sounds of future while they were still in the making.

Since Weindling started to document the music he liked on his Babel label, he hasn't looked back. In 2012, Weindling is as busy as ever with a release schedule that keeps on growing, and as the catalog reveals, his taste is exquisite, but eclectic, ranging from roots- music and blues to modern jazz and avant-garde metal.

All About Jazz: When did you form the label and was there any particular reason why it happened?

Oliver Weindling: Babel was formed in 1994. I was working with a few musicians like Billy Jenkins and Iain Ballamy, and was amazed how difficult it was at that time to get good music released. The press at the time only seemed to want to write about musicians when there was a new album. I had particularly got interested in the jazz scene around the time of Loose Tubes, when I met many of the musicians. Things had gradually evolved from my being involved with musicians as a hobby while working as an economist in a bank to my moving beyond that in 1989.

AAJ: What's the story behind the name?

OW: The name Babel is to reflect the Tower and the universal language of music. It has always been a concern of mine that, unlike that tower in the Bible, mine doesn't fall down.

AAJ: You also run a jazz club. Do you find that your activities as a label owner and concert-promoter influence each other or do you try to separate the different identities?

OW: I am one of the people who helps to run the Vortex, though perhaps the most active of the directors! It is structured as a non-profit club. I got involved there when it was being squeezed out from its previous venue and I realized that the philosophy behind the Vortex was similar to mine. Certainly I am influenced by what I hear in the club in terms of where recordings go and I get to know the musicians there.

AAJ: Do you favor a "live" feel on your recordings or do you prefer the sound of the studio? Is there a particular engineer you work with?

OW: As they say, recordings are recordings and live is live. Live recordings are great when they work, and indeed many of the classic recordings that I can think of have been of live concerts. Nevertheless, there are things that can be achieved in a studio of course. A few releases on Babel are based around live recordings, most recently the 2012 album Catatumbo, which is actually a Vortex gig.

There are no preferred studios or engineers, though the scene here in London, which I am involved with, seems to gravitate towards a few studios and engineers. We are driven by what is good value as a studio and is sympathetic. So we even have releases on Babel which are recorded in Abbey Road—such as the new album by Blink, Twice—or just in the Vortex itself as with Catatumbo. It tends to reflect the preferences of the musicians. Overall, the process of recording is quite proactive.

I prefer to produce and work in partnership with the musicians. This is perhaps closer to how things were in the past. We are no longer in an era where a producer or label boss can impose his own views on the musicians. Certainly there are a few in jazz still where this approach is strong, but less than before. I look closer to the openness of some of the labels like Leo or Emanem where the musician has a strong relationship.

AAJ: How do you find your artists and how would you define the aesthetics of the label? As a producer, is there a particular sound you're looking for?

OW: I find the artists through listening, meeting and recommendation. I find that the decision to release an album with anyone is part of a process which may start a long time before. The aesthetics of the label are based on whatever I feel like. My view is that jazz is about an approach rather than a stylistic continuity.

I don't think that it's possible to say that there is a particular sound or approach. There may be at one particular time, and there will be connections through to the past because musicians listen to lots of older recordings or are directed through to them, either through recommendation of their colleagues or through investigation during their studies. So, in the early days, it was a "post Loose Tubes generation." Nowadays, for example, I am releasing a number of young musicians who actually all seemed to study at Guildhall School of Music around the same time.

It's less about the sound than about the attitude and where we are at any time. I prefer to release artists who are located around London, as it's easier for me! Though that too is not a hard and fast rule, since within the catalogue there are all sorts of exceptions. Some singer-songwriters with a bit of jazz in there, such as Paula Rae Gibson, some releases that veer towards heavy metal, such as Bilbao Syndrome, or compilations, such as Now's The Time. There will even soon be a piece reinterpreting Stockhausen's Tierkreis.

I like to feel that all the music is valid and has something to try and tell. Often musicians have a challenge to do something a bit out of the ordinary. In marketing terms that would be the "unique selling point."

I also have a belief that quality music can somehow sell, though it might take time for people to realize it. Unfortunately, for my bank balance, that can be a long time.

AAJ: Babel has done a lot to promote the new wave of British jazz. How would you characterize the British jazz scene and do you see any development over the years since you have been documenting the scene?

OW:The British scene has certainly always had an openness to it, in terms of the influences and attitude. London is a city of 9 million with great multicultural influences. So there is a great ability to respond. There is also a nice balance of respect and irreverence. Of course over the years there have been changes. Nowadays 90% of the musicians have been trained in music colleges, whereas when Babel started that was a minority, since there were hardly any conservatoire courses. Fortunately, though, the courses are run by musicians trained in the real world of the 1980s and are pushing students in a good way. At Middlesex University, for example, the course is run by Loose Tubes alumni such as Chris Batchelor and Stuart Hall. The result from there is that we have musicians like Led Bib over here, or Jason Yarde or Stian Westerhus.

I am pleased that we have perhaps returned to an approach to jazz and music which was stronger at the end of the 1960s. There is a lot less self-consciousness about being branded as "jazz" or "improvised" or indeed any other category. Musicians can balance being themselves with the financial imperatives. I like the fact that some of them are trying out more unusual combinations of instruments or approaches to bring different styles together. There's a great attitude to improvisation in the broadest sense.

I believe that the consistency of Babel and the approach of the Vortex have both contributed to this by encouraging such an approach. Around the Vortex has developed something about the music and attitude, with new venues such as Cafe Oto having an overlapping approach and even blogs started focusing on the area of Dalston and its music.

AAJ: Could you talk about some of the key artists and albums that have been important in terms of the label's development? If you were to choose some highlights, what would they be?

OW: That's a very difficult one. I am certainly proud of many of the releases that have passed through Babel. I am constantly reminded of them all every now and then, when the albums get played in the breaks at the Vortex. I am proud to have released as many albums as I have by Billy Jenkins, who is a father figure to the scene and has an immense imagination and ability. Then there are a few albums which have since gone on to get important status. It delights me when musicians after a few years have pointed to Babel albums as their own personal favorites—such as Julian Arguelles' selection of 2006's Skull View.

I love the albums that I have done with Chris Batchelor and Steve Buckley, such as Life As We Know It and Big Air. Work with the various collectives in London, such as with F- IRE (artists like Polar Bear, Acoustic Ladyland, Tom Arthurs, Finn Peters and Ingrid Laubrock), and with Loop's Outhouse, Fraud and Golden Age of Steam.

I am proud to have had two nominations for the major popular music prize here, the Mercury Prize, for Polar Bear's Held on The Tips of Fingers and Portico Quartet's Knee Deep in the North Sea. I regard that as quite a feat for a label that has basically been a one-man show. Then there is the documenting of a generation that has been a bit lost internationally—Christine Tobin, Partisans and Phil Robson.

Huw Warren is also a musician who has done great albums on Babel, where I always hear something new every time I put the albums on. Now, I am working with a range of musicians, from some doing their first albums, such as Bruno Heinen or Dan Messore through to bands like The Gannets, Vole and Partisans. When I travel to festivals and so on, I am amazed and proud of the number of musicians playing there who are keen on what the Vortex is about.

AAJ: What is your take on the new technology? Do you see it as an opportunity or a hindrance? Could you imagine Babel being a label that only released downloads or is it important to you that there is a physical product?

OW: The good news is that one can be all things to all people. I find it liberating that the power of the traditional shop chains has been lost. So we can go back and release CDs, downloads and even vinyl. Covers and packaging can be more or less lavish.

As long as there is interest in physical products as means of dissemination of the music, I certainly shall continue to release CDs and similar. I shall be sorry when the day comes that we can't give something material to friends, where they respond to the content, and that includes books. But there will be more and more download only releases, I am sure.

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