Label Spotlight

Yolk Records
By Ken Waxman

Tucked away in Nantes, a small city in western France, 55 kilometres from the Atlantic coastline, the Yolk label has still managed to release more than 70 CDs since 1999. A non-profit organization that gives artists complete control of their releases, from production to financing, Yolk was founded by three musicians who remain its artistic directors: saxophonist Alban Darche, bassist Sébastien Boisseau, both of whom live in Nantes, and trombonist Jean Louis Pommier, from nearby Le Mans. Former journalist Thierry Mallevaës is Yolk’s president, while Jean Depagne is label designer. The Yolk name, like the yellow cover color of the imprint’s initial CDs, is meant to reflect the nutritious qualities of an egg and the hatching of brand-new music.

This organized productivity is a far cry from the label’s founding, remembers Boisseau. `”When we started it was at home, gluing the card sleeves, managing everything by ourselves.” The three had met gigging in the early ‘90s and soon decided that a counterweight to France’s Paris-centric jazz scene was needed. “It became obvious for us quite early that living in this area would give us a chance to play our music,” recalls the bassist. “We saved a lot of energy living outside of Paris, which is a very expensive city with no economy for jazz except a few big festivals. Also, Jazz music arrived in Europe through this west coast and step by step Nantes has become a real jazz scene, with a lot of musicians.”

Faith in the area has paid off. Since 2010 the city of Nantes has given Yolk an annual subvention which accounts for approximately 35 per cent of its budget. Because of this, Yolk now has a permanent office, a CD stockroom, a rehearsal room and employs two people part-time to do billing and office work.

Although Darche has been featured on 23 Yolk CDs, Boisseau on 19 and Pommier on 15, the label is by no means a vanity imprint. Included in its catalogue are about 200 different musicians, including French, Belgian, Swiss and even Americans such as Ellery Eskelin and John Hollenbeck. “We’re very active musicians first,” explains Boisseau. “So everything happens through our activities as a musician. You play in a band, you meet a guy, you keep in touch because of musical affinities, and one day he’s involved in a Yolk release. No passport required here. Because of our personal connections, there are more non-French players included. Bo Van der Werf’s Octurn, for instance or Jozef Dumoulin’s Red Hill Orchestra are two releases led by Belgian musicians. I played for many years in a Brussels collective and Dumoulin was also a member. It’s exciting to build artistic bridges between countries. Jon Irabagon, [Swiss trombonist] Samuel Blaser, Hollenbeck, Eskelin. Dumoulin …We’ll go further that way in the future.”

Paris-based keyboardist Dumoulin, featured on five Yolk CDs, says “I can only speak in the most positive terms about my experience with Yolk.” A couple of years ago, his Trust CD with Eskelin and drummer Dan Weiss whose release was to coincide with a tour, was orphaned when the imprint for which it was planned went bankrupt. “I asked Sébastien and Alban and things were sorted out very quickly,” he recalls.” I went through all the phases with Sébastien and it was a huge relief to be dealing with someone like him, since he's a musician himself and also an extremely well-organized and practical one. All was taken care of in a really smooth, clear and simple way and the CD came out really well.”

Decisions on who to record and release on Yolk depend on unanimity among the artistic directors. “Yolk is a musician’s house,” Boisseau reiterates. “So the focus is on high quality and durable music. Yolk releases bands’ or artists’ productions. The artists have been the producers since the beginning. Plus we three don’t participate in the recording process if we’re not playing on the session.”

Expenditures associated with CD production are split 50-50. The featured artist pays for studio time. Yolk is responsible for costs related to design, post production, media relations, distribution monitoring and other non-musical functions. Any profit is shared half-and-half between the artist, who is also the sole owner of the CD and its master tapes, and the label. No Yolk CD has even been repressed. Once the initial pressing is sold, that’s it. “We don’t have the budget to repress,” admits Boisseau. “And we prefer to keep it for current releases.”

All Yolk sessions have been CDs except for Wood, a duo by Boisseau and saxophonist Matthieu Donarier. “The sound and graphic experience for an LP is so different,” notes the bassist. “But we expect to release a double LP compilation to celebrate 20 years of the label.” Disc downloads in different formats are available from the Yolk web site, but since the label hardy earns anything from downloads, that may be discontinued. “Yolk fans still prefer physical items,” notes Boisseau. “And we love to present a new cover and artwork each time.” That’s also why a series of Yolk boxes are available from the web site or artists themselves. Limited to 300 copies these artisanal white boxes contain a variety of objects chosen by the artist plus the disc. “This is a way for us to add some value to the release. We’re not a file generator, we’re coming from hard copies and are looking for good balance,” insists the bassist.

This balance also means that no Yolk artist – including the artistic directors –records exclusively for the label. “Yolk is our base, an artisanal tool, which we use mostly for our releases as leaders,” Boisseau explains. “But Yolk doesn’t yet have the capacity to release all of our works. Still it’s interesting to work with different producers in different countries. Each serious label is an adventure itself, an artistic path. Working with Budapest Music Center, for example, means to be part of their vision for classical, contemporary and jazz music. It opens new perspectives.”

One abandoned perspective took place from 2006 to 2009 when Yolk helped set up a cross-border network of musicians’ collectives and organized festivals in Paris and Nantes. Donarier, who lives in Pré en Pail and trombonist Daniel Casimir were part of the team during that period. Donarier, featured on 12 Yolk releases, remembers the time as “very intense and exciting. And we still continue to harvest the fruits of what we sowed: visibility, network, friendship, all over Europe,” he affirms. The initiative was financed by a French government grant. Without the subsidy Yolk couldn’t carry on, although Boisseau says the festival may return. “Yolk Records is a label created by musicians, for musicians,” elaborates Donarier. “Sending music files to Yolk, you know that really accurate musicians will listen to everything, and will vote for releasing it or not. If they’re up for it, they won’t ask you to change or remove anything from the album. The Yolk catalogue consists of really different kinds of music.”

Among CDs scheduled for release this year and next are Mots croisés/Crosswords, with Pommier, Darche and American spoken word artist Desdamona; Mix of Sun and Cloud, by JASS (Hollenbeck, Darche, Boisseau and Blaser); Wood’s second disc with British trumpeter Tom Arthurs guesting; and Le Tombeau de Poulenc, featuring Darche with pianist Jean-Christophe Cholet and former Vienna Art Orchestra leader Mathias Ruëgg.

As Boisseau says: “Yolk is one way to get work for musicians who need to play. We’re musicians not producers for a market.

—For The New York City Jazz Record August 2016