Label Spotlight:

Improvising Beings
By Ken Waxman

A combination of altruism, friendship and obsession are behind Paris’ Improvising Beings (IB) label, which in less than four years has produced 20 CDs, featuring a cross section of deeply committed French, American and Japanese sound experimenters. Many more discs will appear in the next few months, because as artistic director Julien Palomo says: “I’m not producing records. I am documenting lives at a particular moment.”

Palomo, whose day job is head of student cultural affairs at Paris’ Sciences Po, began documenting free jazz a decade ago when he became friends with American alto saxophonist Sonny Simmons. Within a couple of years he, Michel Kristof and Roy Morris established Hello World! Simmons’ Web site, and began offering downloads of Simmons’ sessions. Then the group started burning limited edition CD-Rs that Simmons could sell at gigs. “We found ourselves spending nights in my kitchen burning CD-Rs, pushing the inkjet printer to its limits and assembling things. But by April 2008 we were all a bit tired of the DIY method and I quit for a year,” he recalls.

These Simmons’ sessions were recorded by Parisian bass player Benjamin Duboc, who plays with many advanced musicians on the French scene. “Duboc taught me where to put a mike, what editing, mixing and mastering is, and how to deal with publishing and contracts,” recalls Palomo. “Then in 2009 he forced me to get back on top of things by dropping by my place one evening saying, ‘Come on, tomorrow we record the first album of your new label with [Japanese trumpeter Itaru] Oki’.” Oki plays with Duboc in a band called NUTS, so the Oki/Duboc session became Nobusiko.

“I’m doing the records others don’t do,” Palomo explains. “My main incentive is that we need more Simmons, more [French pianist François] Tusques, more Oki, more [American multi-instrumentalist Alan] Silva. They’ve mastered their instruments and concepts for six decades and it’s important to document that. IBs are more documents than regular records. They have no real commercial value right now but will later have a strong cultural value.”

One of the best-documented French pioneers of free jazz in the ‘60s, Tusques hadn’t had a new record since 2005 when Topolitologie, his duet with American drummer Noel McGhie appeared. “I decided to release CDs with Julien because he’s the only guy I know who believes in me and in what I play,” Tusques explains. “I met him two years ago when he told me he was interested in my musical story and wanted to make many new CDs of my music. He’s really interested in what I do rather than in commercial considerations.” More CDs by Tusques and Simmons are planned, affirms Palomo. “François lives in Paris and I attend every gig and tape everything. When we’re set on something, either we use those tapes or go ahead in a more proper setting.”

This year, for instance IB released Tusques’ solo disc, L’étange Chang (mais les poissons sont toujours là), a quartet session, New Today, New Everyday featuring Silva on synthesizer and Oki with tenor saxophonist Abdelhaï Bennani and drummer Makoto Sato. Beyond the Planet, a two-CD set by Simmons will be out soon plus more new and archival Tusques and Simmons sessions.

Palomo’s other obsession is Japanese Improv, which is why CDs like Oki’s, and Crimson Lip, featuring Silva, vocalist Keiko Higuchi, percussionist Sabu Toyozumi and guitarist Takuo Tanikawa are available. “Early on I discovered Japanese free jazz by seeking out Itaru’s albums,” Palomo remembers. “Soon I discovered the huge production of Japanese free-jazz. When I finally set foot in Tokyo in 2009, I saw Alan [Silva]’s all-Japanese Celestrial CD with Kazutoki Umezu, Shota Koyama, Nobuyoshi Ino, Akira Sakata, names that should be as important to free jazz as Peter Brötzmann, William Parker or Frank Lowe. Higuchi and Tanikawa, who are mainstays of the free scene in Tokyo, have become my friends. Skedded for immediate release on IB are Tanikawa’s Music for the Contemporary Kagura with Silva and Awai from Higuchi.

While his Asian contacts were multiplying so were Palomo’s connections with American free musician. There’s Zorn from Cambridge, Mass saxophonist Mario Rechtern and pianist Eric Zinman; and Bound and Gagged is from New Yorkers, saxophonist-guitarist Jeff Shurdut and bassist Gene Janas. “I met Jeff through the internet in 2004,” recalls Palomo. Today I discuss an enormous amount of things with him almost daily. I met Gene on eBay when I beat him in an auction. Jeff and Gene worked together to creates Bound and Gagged and its follow-ups.” IB’s catalogue is filled out by discs from French free players in the avant-rock as well as jazz fields. Many are associates of Duboc. “When the music is too difficult for me to record and/or mix on my own, Duboc lends a hand to perform his white magic on computers to save muddy tracks,” Palomo clarifies.

“I was on Improvising Being’s first CD and maybe I’ll be the bassist for the last one too,” jokes Duboc, “and I record and mix a lot of the others. “Julien and I don’t agree about all the music he records, but it’s a great experience. Julien’s first love is for music and musicians without concession and nobody does what he does. He does it not for the money but for the improvising beings. He’s a track maker who is recording for the future.”

IB releases are pressed in batches of 300 or 500, with the musicians retaining all publishing and licensing rights, and receiving copies of the masters. They’re paid a flat fee and/or 100 to 150 copies for gig sales. “The older generation prefers the flat fee, the younger generation prefers CDs because they tour more,” acknowledges Palomo. IB pays for all manufacturing, distribution and taxes, “important in France because it takes up to 30 per cent of manufacturing costs,” he notes. Palomo puts up the majority of funds, with Paris-based Kristof, who helps operate the IB Internet site, also contributing, along with Scottish music supporter Morris, who initially recorded IB’s For Harriet by American saxophonist Joe Rigby. Any profits help finance subsequent CDs. “Basically it works because I don’t mind losing money,” Palomo adds. “I’m happy if 40 per cent of the money comes back to keep the label going; 75 per cent is cool too. I don’t own the music. A record is not like a painting you don’t buy it and keep it in your salon. I find it unethical to keep somebody from his own art forever.”

That’s also why IB has stayed away from LPs. “My philosophy is die-hard DIY and that kind of vinyl mastering process, test pressing and all would eat too much of my time better spent preserving my friends’ music. LPs are also too expensive for a small label like mine. Shipping costs to the US and Japan would be awful for potential customers. Anyway I’m a child of the CD era. We live in the era of the LP revival. I’m getting ready for the CD revival in the 2050s. IB CDs will go on eBay for $500 apiece,” he teases.

As for downloads, while Palomo likes the idea of being able to release longer performances, he figures the audience for free music isn’t really interested in downloading. “So I stick to CDs.”

—For The New York City Jazz Record June 2013