Label Spotlight

Babel
By Ken Waxman

With London considered the financial centre of the world, it seems appropriate that a former bank economist is using his record label to try to make that city and its musicians the centre of the jazz world – or at least working steadily.

The label is Babel, which in the years leading up to its 20th anniversary in 2014 has released more than 130 CDs in a variety of styles connected to the UK capital’s burgeoning music scene. Oliver Weindling is Babel’s founder, proprietor and only full-time employee. He started the imprint after a financial market contraction led him into consultancy and organizing gigs for local musicians. Today he’s also an unpaid director of London’s Vortex Jazz club. The reason for Babel’s birth: “There weren’t labels releasing music by musicians with whom I was working, and at that time releases were essential to get any publicity,” he explains. The name reflects the concept of music as a universal; language and is understandable in many languages, a plus when, as Weindling points out “you’re as likely to get a review in Germany as in UK.”

With a tacit understanding of both economics and publicity, Weindling and Babel have continued on a singular path, recording bands such as Led Bib and Dice Factory plus individuals including pianist Alexander Hawkins and saxophonist Tom Challenger.

What Babel releases have in common, says Weindling is the “concept of being imaginative and pushing at boundaries. It reflects how I’m drawn to where some musicians lead me. I have a very broad definition of ‘jazz’ which has very blurred edges anyway. Quality and commerciality are not mutually exclusive. Is John Coltrane playing ‘My Favorite Things’, taken from one of the most popular musicals of its period, to be dismissed as commercial? With hindsight, certainly not…”

This multiplicity of styles sets Babel apart from most imprints directed towards one genre and certain artists. “In my own way, I'm as powerful as the head of any multinational such as Universal, in terms of having ideas implemented,” jokes Weindling. “The difference is that usually I have to carry out the tasks myself. I also help with most mundane activities such as packing and delivering.” Babel’s other staffers are part-time label manager Pail Lewis and Matt Mead, who helps with production.

“I knew Oliver because of the Vortex. He really cares about the scene here,” explains Hawkins. “I wanted to work with a UK label to gain more profile at home. I was feeling that musicians such as myself who are interested in composition within the creative music context were falling between two stools: too ‘out’ for the jazz guys, and too much composition for the ‘free’ scene. But Babel releases a huge range of things stylistically; and Oliver was very open to my approach.

“At the end of last year I mentioned my two forthcoming records. I floated the idea of Babel possibly doing both and he said ‘yes’, no questions asked; no request to hear a demo; etc. I want to work with a guy who is prepared to support me in this way and show this faith in what I do.”

Confirms Challenger: “The uniqueness of Babel in context of other labels is that it offers support that others might not be able to. Artistic compromise is at the bottom of the agenda. This signals a shift in a label’s priorities to which musicians can relate and exist within. Boundaries are eradicated, and the music is allowed to be freer and more representative. Babel enables a band to release a record with enhanced knowledgeable and financial incentive. Oliver is a massive supporter of ‘forward music’ in London, and to have his endorsement is a sign of respect. He plays absolutely no artistic role in the making of a record – again, a sign of respect.”

Funds from Weindling’s previous jobs provided the seed money to launch Babel. Now most releases are joint ventures with musicians licensing their recordings to Babel and after-cost profits shared. “Oliver’s not an ‘in the control room’-type producer,” notes Hawkins. “He turned up to our recent Ensemble session, but just for a couple of hours to hang out. He contributed to my sessions by his ‘light touch’: he let me record, programme, package etc. the music exactly how I wanted. By the same token, I've no doubt that had I asked for something, he would have been willing to do what he could.”

Explains Weindling: “Both parties push each other with musicians actively part of the whole process throughout. We apply our knowledge and the opportunity to provide shared benefits of economies of scale.”

Many Babel musicians are members of London musical cooperatives which is no accident either. “The collectives are great through the ways in which they share resources and marketing. Mutual self help is, once again, the way forward,” he adds. Explains Challenger: “Being a member of The Loop Collective is a way to further our music and promote the new things that happen every week in London. Babel essentially does exactly the same with a different business model. However, as all good arts organizations and activists find, our paths cross. Depending on the project it suits Loop Artists to record for Babel, and vise versa. It also suits Loop that Babel is seen to be an active part of the Collective’s output.”

Weindling ensures that “recordings come to the notice of the world in an efficient and effective way; nowadays marketing is more the ever a worldwide activity.” Besides overseas distribution, Babel has created a number of CD compilations for various publications. Two Babel CDs were nominated for the Mercury, a major British popular music prize as well.

“But, as ever in jazz, the best way that people get to hear about albums is through the performance by musicians,” he cautions. “So we regard the releases working proactive with the marketing of musicians and their music.” Adds Hawkins: “Oliver is proud of his releases. He takes copies wherever he goes; he gives people copies; he’s forever telling people about the things he’s done; he enthuses about his catalogue; he enthuses about what he might do in the future.”

Right now all Babel releases are available on CD and as downloads; a few are also sold on vinyl. “We do more and more downloads, but ignore CDs at your peril,” warns Weindling. “CD sales may be declining but have still got a while to go.”

Although there are no plans for special releases related to Babel’s 20th anniversary, plenty of new CDs will appear, including a couple not even 100% London-based. One features Britons Kit Downes and James Allsopp plus Sylvain Darrifourcq, Adrien Dennefeld from France; another a duo of Scottish saxophonist Raymond MacDonald with American pianist Marilyn Crispell.

“If a label is to exist in the present climate, it needs to justify its position,” declares Weindling. After 130 well-received releases, it’s apparent that Babel has done so.

—For The New York City Jazz Record January 2014