Loose Torque

Label Spotlight
By Ken Waxman

London’s Loose Torque label is the audio equivalent of a small press publisher which concentrates on aesthetics. Just as those firms’ limited-edition books are printed on high-quality paper with covers produced by hand-operated letterpress, Loose Torque CDRs are computer-burned in batches of 100, using specialist Taiyo Yuden discs, with professionally designed packaging.

Loose Torque is the brainchild of veteran British bassist Nick Stephens, who describes himself as “artist-producer-runner. I play on and record the music, mix and edit it, think of titles, burn, print and pack the discs and take them to the post office.” Founded in 2005, Loose Torque has already released 21 CDRs, ranging from archival sessions with such major UK players as alto saxophonist Dudu Pukwana and drummer John Stevens, to contemporary dates that showcase Norwegian saxophonist Frode Gjerstad, British trumpeter Jon Corbett and South African drummer Louis Moholo-Moholo among others. The label’s literal in-house art staff is Stephens’ wife Fay, an illustrator and New Media designer, who also maintains the Web site.

Loose Torque’s genesis resulted from combination of serendipity and frustration. “I had a lot of tapes in my cupboard mostly from my 17-or-so years with John Stevens,” Stephens explains. “Similarly Dudu recorded everything he did, and not long before he died he gave me a shoebox full of tapes.” Also on hand was a studio effort recorded in 1996 by Calling Signals – Stephens’ band with Gjerstad – which didn`t interest commercial labels. But “the clincher was my Septet. I was very proud of the group, had two years worth of recordings, but couldn’t get it on record.” Meanwhile Stephens had already built a home-studio. “I was coming-up 60 and beginning to feel unsure about my immortality. I wanted some way of documenting musicians and our place in the music of the time,” he remembers.

Soon he discovered the advantages of Taiyo Yudin, a company in business since 1950 and which patented the world's first CDR. “I wanted short runs. I’ve heard independent label owners say having 1,000 CDs leaves them with a garage full of unsold discs. But ours is genuinely a cottage industry. Up until recently I burned the disks one at a time to order. I’ve now bought a seven-CD tower, but I still thermal print each disc one at a time.” Another long-time improviser who often plays with Stephens, Corbett thought up the label name. “Loose torque suggests informal dialogue, and I thought that it quite aptly described improvised music where the participants interact with each other,” he recalls.

The label’s first batch of seven releases included Fast Colour Antwerp 1988 (LT 001), by a Stevens-led septet never documented on record. Besides the drummer and bassist, personnel included trumpeter Harry Beckett, Pukwana and Evan Parker on saxophones, trombonist Annie Whitehead and vocalist Pinise Saul. Over the years, “Fast Colour has been our best seller, but anything with The Vikings – Frode and Paal [Nilssen-Love] – or Louis [Moholo-Moholo] on it also causes some interest,” Stephens notes.

“Nick and I are friends so when we do something together he’ll record it and if he and I think it’s OK, he’ll release it,” reports Gjerstad. “A CDR reflects the fact that this is a small music. But it shows that it’s possible to release stuff without having a major label contract. Limited distribution doesn’t bother me. When I tour I bring CDs along and people buy them. Loose Torque may be a kitchen operation, but at the end of the day, the artist still makes a little money. Some companies want all rights in exchange for releasing a CD. And with downloads and streaming it’s easy to lose control. But Nick will give me as many discs as I want [to sell].”

Recording new material is part of Stephens’ desire to document under-recorded players. “Recording sessions are like a social club, guys who know each other meeting in a relaxed atmosphere with no temporal or financial restrictions, apart from pub opening hours,” confirms Corbett. “You don’t get that from more commercial labels. Nick is very open to suggestions and you can get involved in the editing and mixing if you so wish, or leave it to his excellent ears.”

As for archival discs, “the decisions over which old material to release are based on sustained quality of music and sound, potential interest and my time,” Stephens explains. Dangerous Musics In ‘91(LT 017) for instance, with himself, Corbett and drummer Roger Turner was “a group that was influential at the time, but unrecorded and hardly known outside of London.” The CDR is drawn from two cassette tapes; one from a session at Turner’s flat and one “from a tape that Jon found down the back of his sofa which must have been given to him by someone after a gig.”

Stephens concedes that “the problem with CDRs “is that most shops won’t stock them.” Still Loose Torque has distribution through Improjazz in France, No Mans’ Land in Germany and New York’s Downtown Music Gallery, “I quite enjoy selling discs personally through the Web site,” Stephens confesses. “We might not sell a record for weeks, then somebody e-mails and buys half the catalogue in one purchase. We also have customers who have been with us since Day One.” As for downloads, “I have thought about making downloads available, but I'm not sure how that would work out. Then again I think a small output, hand-made label has its own appeal.”

This hand-made label’s activities have recently expanded to include Americans. Its newest disc is Attic Antics (LT 023), with Stephens and Chicago cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm. “Given the opportunity, I would love to have more overseas musicians on the label,” Stephens concedes. “I nearly did with a quartet of me, Sabir Mateen, Kevin Norton and Louis Moholo-Moholo at the Molde Jazz Festival. But 10 minutes after the concert started my travel bass collapsed. By the time I reassembled it the gig was nearly over. There’s a recording of the show, but it’s interrupted by me saying ‘fuck’ a lot.”

As for the future, Stephens wants to “dust off some more tapes from the cupboard”, including sessions with violinist Nigel Coombes and more by Stevens’ Away group, since the group’s saxophonist recently gave Stephens more band material. Almost ready for released is a trio recording with Corbett and [drummer] Tony Marsh. Plus the bassist would like to record Norwegian tuba player Børre Mølstad.

Loose Torque exists because of the satisfaction he gets from it, notes Stephens. “I've been a musician all my life, I didn’t expect to make much money out of it, but I would like to leave something behind for my efforts. Making records seems to be the only way.”

—For New York City Jazz Record October 2011