August 6, 2012
By Ken Waxman
Serendipity not strategy led to the birth of the British label SLAM 23 years ago, which since that time, from its base in Abingdon, six miles south of Oxford, has grown to a catalogue of almost 160 releases from European, South and North American improvisers.
SLAM simply came about when journeyman multi-reedist George Haslam, who at 50 had played with everyone from ‘30s dance band trumpeter Nat Gonella to free music trombonist Paul Rutherford decided he wanted to release a disc of solo baritone saxophone improvisations. “I made a couple of LPs on Spotlite with my group, but I wanted to make a solo improvised recording and I knew this would not fit with Spotlite whose beginnings had been with Charlie Parker,” he recalls. “I spoke to Eddie Prevost [who runs the Matchless label] and others, coming to the conclusion that the best way to do this and have complete control, was to do it myself. Eddie advised me to do a CD, not an LP – which, in 1989, was excellent advice. In the event I recorded an album of solos and duos with Paul Rutherford called 1989 - and all that”.
The only idea was preserving his own work, he adds. “I had no intention of creating a new CD label. I played a concert in Oxford with [soprano saxophonist] Lol Coxhill, Paul Rutherford and [pianist] Howard Riley; Michael Gerzon made a beautiful recording and so I made the CD The Holywell Concert . Sometime later, Howard [Riley] approached me with a great recording by the quartet he co-led with [alto saxophonist] Elton Dean, asking if I would like to put it out ‘on your label’. I agreed and that was when the label was established.”
A one-man outfit, with Haslam preferring the title “sole proprietor”, SLAM soon grew exponentially as other musicians began offering him sessions to release. Not liking the clichéd “001”, his first CD was numbered “301” with a different numbering system needed for other release. UK musicians’ discs come out on the 200 series; the 400 series is for compilations; and 500 for non-UK artists. “One or two have slipped in the wrong series, purely by mistake,” he jokes.
Certainly there have been many CDs to deal with in nearly a quarter-century, during which Haslam has “built great working relations with studios, design artists, photographers, pressing and printing plants and legal advisors”. SLAM’s first non-British releases date from 1992 when Haslam was arranging a jazz festival in Oxford. Admiring the work soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy, with whom he had previously played, had done with pianist Mal Waldron, he invited them to the festival. The recorded concert became Let’s Call This … Estee. Interestingly enough this was Haslam’s first meeting with Waldron, with whom he would record Waldron-Haslam in 1994, which remains one of the label’s best-selling discs.
Always a world traveler –Haslam often plays in Eastern Europe and South America, in the mid-‘90s SLAM gradually began putting out discs featuring the saxman with local players.
“Since around 2005, he elaborates, “I’ve been contacted by musicians from many different countries – always unsolicited and quite out of the blue. Where appropriate I have tried to present their music. I guess they see SLAM as active in the same area of music as themselves.”
One improviser who does is Swiss trombonist Samuel Blaser, whose Solo Bone CD appeared on SLAM in 2008 and who is to record a new solo trombone album for the label at the end 2012. “Solo Bone was actually my very first solo concert I gave in Switzerland. It was recorded by Swiss radio and the results turned out so well that I decided to release it. I started shopping it around, but few labels were interested.One reason was due to the difficulties to sell such a challenging product. Unfortunately few people have an interest in listening to a trombone by itself. However, George automatically showed interest and asked me to send the recording. I heard back from him a couple of weeks after that telling me he loved it and that he wanted to put it out. I am really thankful George decided to release Solo Bone and even more happy to work with him on the following one. I guess George takes some risks to release this music. It’s challenging to put out free jazz music in today's market. Fortunately we still have people like George who continuously support our community.”
All discs that appear on SLAM in what Haslam calls a “joint venture” arrangement. Although he self-finances he own releases, other avenues such as recording grants available from the Arts Council of England were discontinued years ago. “Musicians need to find a level of funding which I put towards the costs of printing, pressing, licensing etc. The musicians’ financial input is expected to be returned through gig sales and royalties. I see SLAM sitting somewhere between a ‘self release’ and a signed up contracted operation. The musicians have complete control over the music, artwork etc., but hopefully benefit from being on an established label.”
Besides Haslam, who has appeared on about 40 of the imprint’s releases, SLAM’s the musician who has appeared on the most SLAM CDS is tenor saxophonist Paul Dunmall. “I knew George in the late ‘70s early ‘80s before he set up SLAM records when I played every Sunday night at the old fire station in Oxford,” recalls Dunmall. “George said he was going to start a label and when I recorded the double CD in 1993 that became Quartet, Sextet and Trio
I asked if he would be interested in releasing it. He agreed, and basically we have had a very good working relationship since then. Now sometimes I have a recording and think it would be perfect on SLAM. I don't remember him ever turning anything down that I have offered him. He does a very thorough job and really makes a lot of effort to get releases known in the press etc. Also he makes the business side of things very clear and he is a very honest man. He has a very open policy with his ideas of the music that will work on his label. It's not just improvised music, there's a huge variety of styles although of course it is jazz based somewhere along the line. SLAM really has had a huge impact on the improvised/jazz music scene especially here in the UK. You only have to look at his vast catalogue to see what a great job he has done.”
Dunmall, who started his CDR-only DUNS Limited label in 2000, says he did so to have discs to sell at gigs. “To release a CD back then was quite expensive, so I could probably just do one CD for SLAM a year if I was lucky, but with DUNS I could put out one CDR a month. But I think it was also important to have music released on established labels like SLAM. I hope the label keeps going for years to come. It will be tough, but George is a determined guy.”
Overall SLAM releases about six or seven CDs a year, with sales ranging from those which don’t reach three figures to those which sell about 1,000 copies or so. Besides Waldron- Haslam, the label’s other best sellers are Explorations … to the Mth Degree, a duet by drummer Max Roach and Waldron; and The Vortex Tapes, recorded at that London club by Dean in group featuring among others, bassist Paul Rogers, drummer Tony Levin and trombonist Rutherford.
Due to Prévost’s prescient advice there were never any SLAM LPs issued, although there were cassettes. “Last year I looked at producing an LP”, he reveals. “But the costs were quite high. I’d like to do it, apart from anything else the scope for artwork on a 12-inch sleeve is appealing,” he says. Digital downloads of 11 out-of-stock CDs can be ordered through iTunes, Amazon.co.uk and eMusic. As well, The Middle Half by the Esmond Selwyn Hammond Organ Trio is only for sale digitally. “Esmond’s first SLAM CD, Take That, sold out completely; his second The Axe, a collection of jazz standards on solo guitar, sold very few, in spite of rave reviews around the world. Esmond sells them by the dozen on his gigs,” te saxophonist explains. “When he came along with The Middle Half I discussed this with him. He wanted to stay with the label so we went for the digital release with limited quantity pressed for promotion and gig sales. It’s an experiment, but it’s too early to judge results, sales figures take months to trickle through.”
Among the sessions scheduled for release is what Haslam calls “a great new CD by Paul Dunmall playing Coltrane compositions. We sometimes take the masters too much for granted and it is good to be reminded of their contribution to the music.”
He adds: “When a recording is offered to me for release on SLAM, I listen to it and consider is SLAM the right place for it? I don’t have a style template to which the music must fit. There is a wide range of music on the label and the SLAM slogan has always been Freedom of Music. I remember many years ago playing a concert with Lol Coxhill; at one point he was asked to play a solo piece, He said he was going to play ‘Autumn Leaves’. ‘But this is a ‘free’ gig, Lol’ someone said. ‘So,’ said Lol ‘Am I free to play what I want?’ What ties the catalogue together, I hope, is the objective of a) preserving music which may otherwise be lost and b) making this music available to a listening public. To try to ‘educate’ or lead a public would be counterproductive but the music is there to be discovered.”
—For New York City Jazz Record August 2012