Kurt Gottschalk By

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We needed our own label to avoid the inevitable justification for ideas that results from somebody other than yourselves paying for them to be recorded. —John Coxon
The 2001 album Masses was far from the first electronic infusion into jazz. It wasn't even the first time the British duo Spring Heel Jack—known up to that point for more beat-oriented electronica—had worked with acoustic improvisers. But it was a remarkable piece of work—perhaps the first time jazz and electronic music had met on such equal footing, neither side being used to augment or affect the other, a meeting of equals. And it set a path that Thirsty Ear—the label that released the album—and the band continue to follow.

Over the next three years, Spring Heel Jack released three more albums on Thirsty Ear, working with Matthew Shipp, Tim Berne, Roy Campbell, Evan Parker, Han Bennink, Paul Rutherford, John Edwards, Wadada Leo Smith and others, producing some of the most exciting music released during those years, culminating in the tranced-out The Sweetness of the Water. By that point, John Coxon and Ashley Wales had carved out a space uniquely their own in the improv world.

Even after the surprises of the previous years, Spring Heel Jack's next turn was even less predictable. In 2004, a trio of records was released: simple, pastel cardboard covers, their elegant designs featuring gold embossed animals and a title, no other information visible from the outside, one not even including an artist's name. Evan Parker with Birds (a wallaby on green), Trio with Interludes (walrus on blue), Mark Sanders Swallow Chase (a muskrat maybe? on rose). None bore the Spring Heel Jack imprint—Coxon and Wales's new trade name, it seemed, was "Treader."

"We needed our own label to avoid the inevitable justification for ideas that results from somebody other than yourselves paying for them to be recorded," Coxon said in an email interview. "Also, Treader enables us to have a local outlet—we sell the CDs at concerts, and to have the stock in the cellar is a good thing."

The records were an extension of the Spring Heel Jack ideal, but still something quite new. Birds set Parker's saxophones against a collage of bird sounds assembled by Coxon and Wales. Interludes was a quartet, actually, featuring Parker again with Coxon and Wales on an assortment of keyboards, percussion and guitar and Sanders on percussion. The third of the first round was Sanders solo.

If anything characterizes the new direction they took, it's the attention paid to engineering and crafting the sound of the recordings. Where the Thirsty Ear discs were lush band projects, Treader—with nine releases to date—has a close, internalized sound. Coxon and Wadada Leo Smith's Brooklyn Duos, for example, explodes the moment "play" is pressed with the sound of a harmonica under a microscope.

"We want them to sound physical and tangible," Coxon said. "Swallow Chase was mixed from the drum stool perspective - it ought to sound as if the listener is playing the drums. The harmonica sound on Brooklyn Duos has to do with amp distortion. On Abbey Road Duos [this year's third release, a duo with Parker and Matthew Shipp], the big piano sound results from very good mikes and very good mike amps. We try to take the recording out of the digital domain at the end, [to keep it from] sounding too clinical."

The pair's Amplified Trio with drummer Han Bennink, also from this year, sounds like the three are stacked on top of each other with a microphone in the middle. It's a great sonic mash, reminiscent of the mayhem of some of Bennink's early, solo records.

"The Bennink recording is fairly full on I suppose because we were in a small bright loud room—close to each other," Coxon said. "Ashley was feeling really sick. We drank wine and played without talking about it.

"Birds was more circumspect. We prepared the environments over a couple of days and then gave them to Evan. We both made notes and discussed what we had in mind. Evan wanted to do the overdubs on track two, which we hadn't thought about, for example. For Brooklyn Duos, we played for an hour and most is on the CD, but not in order. We had discussed doing a harmonica record for about a year before. It grew out of track one on The Sweetness of the Water, but it turned out a lot less mellow.."

Clearly big music fans, Coxon and Wales take inspiration from many places for their innovative recordings.

"As far as sonic references," Coxon said, "Incus 1 [Topography of the Lungs by Parker, Derek Bailey and Tony Oxley] mid '60s Impulse, Brunswick soul, Deutche Gramophon, Congo Natty Jungle sides, Harry Mudie, Lee Perry... you know the perfect mix of fidelity and distortion."

But that mix of focused recording and disparate sounds doesn't dictate all of the Treader releases. The third release of 2007, Abbey Road Duos, is a straight-up acoustic duo by Parker and Matthew Shipp.

"Abbey Road has more of a classic jazz sound," he said. "Perhaps Brooklyn Duos and Amp Trio have a 'Treader' sound because we have no jazz background at all."


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