Label Spotlight

By Ken Waxman

Although he states “jazz has always been my first love” when Mark Morris founded London-based Bo’Weavil records in 2004 it was with the conviction that “the walls between genres are coming down”. Because of that, over the years the label has released 57 different titles, on LP and CD, mixing traditional British and American folk music, with modern singer/guitarists sessions along with a hearty helping of free jazz.

“A lot of people who listen to a lot of free music also listen to a lot of traditional music, there’s a link in the authenticity of the music,” adds Morris. “If you listen to records by C Joynes & The Restless Dead for example, [represented by seven Bo’Weavil releases] some quiet different compositions are equally influenced by ethnic folk forms from let’s say Africa or the music of Albert Ayler. [Progressive composer/fiddler] Henry Flynt was certainly influenced by the wealth of avant-garde music, be that free improve, electo-acoustic composers or minimalist composers like Morton Feldman. Flynt became interested in applying minimalist principles to American folk music.

As a matter of fact Bo’Weavil’s first release was a two-LP reissue of Flynt’s Back Porch Hillbilly Blues Vol. 1. At that point Miller, who has moved to Australia, although maintaining the label with a UK base, already had years of experience in record retailing as well as working with special needs children decided to invest in an imprint which “reflects my taste in music; it was never going to be a one genre kind of label.”

Although named for the song “Mississippi Bo’ Weavil Blues” by ‘20s bluesman Charlie Patton, and while he has reissued discs by classic folk performers like Anne Briggs, Roscoe Holcomb and Shirley Collins, the focus has always been on the link between folk and avant-garde music. Do the number of genres and formats available on Bo’Weavil confuse the consumer? Not according to Miller. “There are those that buy the more improv/avant releases, and there are those that buy the more folk releases and there are those that buy both,” he declares. “What’s confusing about that?”

As for the multiplicity of formats, it’s a response to market forces. “At first I only wanted to do LPs, but then stared to do CDs as it seemed worthwhile for new artists,” he relates. “But now I’m slowly moving back to LP only. It’s becoming very hard to sell CDs. I do CD runs of between 300 and 1,000 depending on the artist, and vinyl between 350 and 500. It really depends on what I think I can realistically sell.” As for downloads: “All the titles I’ve released that aren’t licensed from another label are available to download,” he reveals. “But they sell very little as downloads, and it’s not a path I really want to follow.”

What he wants to follow is his commitment to jazz. “I was always going to release jazz, but I was waiting for the right sessions that I wanted to release. These came from contemporary artists like [drummer] Steve Noble, [bassist] John Edwards, and [saxophonist] Alan Wilkinson, plus reissuing [saxophonist] Noah Howard’s Black Ark.” Other improvisers with Bo’Weavil releases include bassist Simon H Fell, percussionist Robbie Avenaim, guitarists Oren Ambarchi and Tetuzi Akiyama and saxophonist Joe McPhee.

“I’ve always tried to get the music to as wide an audience as possible, relates British drummer Steve Noble, who is featured with different bands on eight Bo’Weavil sessions. “As Bo’Weavil has quite a wide variety of styles in its releases it seemed that this would help get the releases that I’m on reviewed in magazines and on-line sites. It’s very helpful to have someone support you and push your ideas forward. In fact the Decoy trio actually came about after a few conversations with Mark about the Hammond organ. Mark suggested a session with myself and John Edwards and it was up to me to choose who would play the Hammond. I asked Alexander Hawkins, and a date was booked, out of which came a CD Spirit and an LP The Deep. Not bad for a day in the studio. This was also the only session that Mark actually attended, mainly because a lot of the releases were recorded live or in the rehearsal studio that I shared with Alan Wilkinson. With three musicians and a recording engineer there’s not much room for others.”

Most Bo’Weavil releases arise from similar circumstances. “I’ve never released a record that came to me as a demo,” says Miller. “Some musicians have approached me that I have been interested in; but most of the time a disc comes out of me approaching people that I want to work with, and it tends to always be people I have seen play live.”

“I’ve never felt any pressure to perform or promote a release, and Mark has always said that he’d default to my preferred choice in any decision with regards to a finished piece of music or artwork”, adds pianist/guitarist Tom James Scott, who has had three records on Bo’Weavil. As for recording folk-styled instrumentals for label with a strong improv music component, he points out that “the composition process for me is nearly always preceded and informed by a great deal of improvisation, with pieces usually formed by expanding on short phrases or groupings of notes which have caught my attention during often longs periods of exploration,” he elucidates “Some pieces have certain sections which are left looser than others, so there's still room for spontaneity within the structure of a piece.”

As for Bo’Weavil’s business model; “I pay for everything”, says Morris says. “Mark has been very supportive in terms of covering part of the studio costs incurred with each release, even when certain sessions have been left un-used,” adds Scott. “Bo'Weavil seems unconcerned by the fact that a release might not sell huge numbers, whereas other labels might view each artist/release as a financial investment and hope to see a good return.” Comments Noble: “I think the main problem for anyone with a small label is selling through shops; they seem to be disappearing.”

Why release on Bo’Weavil? Says Morris: “I assume they want someone to deal with the production side of a record and that the label, I hope, is respected.” Besides the usual promotional avenues, Scott notes that Morris tries to interest TV and film production companies in Bo’Weavil music they can include in their programs.

New records planned or just released, says Morris, include: “Globe Et Dynastie , Renies D’Angleterre’s second album for me . It’s band with the great Ghedalia Tazartes with two young Parisians Elg & Jo, on CD and LP…It’s difficult to describe but incredible stuff. Then there’s another LP with Oren Ambarchi, ecstatic noise drones and a folk duo of Stephanie Hladowski and C Joynes on CD and LP doing English traditional music, simple guitar and voice. There’s an upcoming reissue of a kind of noise rock record from the late ‘90s by a New Zealand band called Garbage and the Flowers, and a reissue of Joe McPhee’s great Nation Time on LP.

Morris’ jazz sensibility arises when asked if any sessions figure on his wish list. “I wish Milford Graves would let someone reissue Babi Music. It’s screaming out for a reissue, but he isn’t interested. But maybe someone can convince him.”

—For The New York City Jazz Record April 2013