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"To survive, every label must have a clear identity. The identity behind Emanem is named Martin Davidson, a music fan who started recording the burgeoning British free improv scene of the 1960s. The Ms are for Martin and ex-wife Madelaine (Mandy). The slogan is 'Unadulterated New Music For People Who Like New Music Unadulterated'.
The imprint has a documentarian image, which is understandable; the earliest Emanem releases include the some of the first releases of the Spontaneous Music Ensemble (and Orchestra), Derek Bailey, Lol Coxhill, Barry Guy and Derek Bailey. All releases name the date of the recordings in parentheses beside the titles, as Anthony Braxton does with his albums.
Their first CDs were reissues of long out of print vinyl, with added or extended cuts. Many Emanems clock in close to eighty minutes. The exquisitely clean corporate design adds to that image. Each tray card is a chart of the disc's tracks, clearly labelled with personnel, timing, venue, and provenance. This is well appreciated by fans like the Italian discographer (and European columnist for AllAboutJazz.com) Francesco Martinelli, who praises a design 'simple, down to earth, and the information is clear. A relief in a world of graphic designers who believe it's cool to write in brown on gold.
One of the advantages of running an independent label is the opportunity to champion lesser known musicians for special tastes. Derek Bailey is the obvious hero of the British guitar avant garde, but fewer know guitarist Roger Smith. Smith put in more years with the Spontaneous Music Ensemble than anyone but its late leader John Stevens. It took a few years for me to 'get' Smith's work, just as it took for me with Bailey, but Smith's solo excursions on UNEXPECTED TURNS and EXTENDED PLAYS are subtle acoustic performances which swirl abstractly around folk-like tonics; one can hear bits of Bert Jansch in his style. His current release, GREEN WOOD, is the easiest to get into, but also the deepest. Producer Davidson notes that because Smith performs mostly at home in the wee hours, 'his playing has become perhaps even quieter that before.'
Saxophonist John Butcher appears frequently on the label with varied partners. One of Butcher's strengths is that his playing is always different. THE SCENIC ROUTE, with violinist Phil Durrant and John Russell on guitar, made my and many other Top Ten Lists of 1999. With Derek Bailey and harpist Rhodri Davies, his ANGELS AND VORTICES is one of my very favorite Emanems. I'd written elsewhere that Davies 'plays his harp like a guitar, and also does fabulous chord strums and drones; it's a guitar, a prepared piano and drum in one.' Another string player, Sylvia Hallett, should not be missed, especially as she plays bowed bicycle wheel spokes on WHITE FOG.
Master vocalist Maggie Nicols, a cross between a violin and a Kathy Berberian, has a fantastic new release, TRANSITIONS, with saxophonist Caroline Kraabel and violist Charlotte Hug. Trombonist Paul Rutherford is anther lynchpin on the Emanem roster. Our editors here are wacky about his brand new solo 'bone disc, TROMBOLEUM. I'm wacky about Rutherford's new BUZZ SOUNDTRACK, previously only on an obscure film, improvised to that 1970 film by his trio Iskra 1903, with Derek Bailey and Barry Guy. Iskra 1903 later featured Guy and violinist Philipp Wachsmann and their FRANKFURT 1991 is excellent.
Pop music finds it hard to sell multidisc releases. What about free improv? 'Surprisingly enough, they don't seem to be, I thought they would be,' remarked Davidson, 'so I stayed off them for some time, but I was proved wrong'. Iskra 1903's three-CD CHAPTER ONE seems to be a favourite release of everyone, and the most exciting new releases have indeed been sets. Last year's STRINGS WITH EVAN PARKER was a big hit, and there were two exciting double CDs of The London Improvisers Orchestra. Both PROCEEDINGS and THE HEARING CONTINUES feature compositions and conductions by a Who's Who of British improv talent: Steve Beresford, Veryan Weston, Simon Fell, Evan of course, Philipp Wachsmann among them, as well as group improvisations.
Evan Parker has inaugurated an important improv festival in London with the intent to showcase improvisers. Happily, the first FREEDOM OF THE CITY festival has been handsomely documented on a pair of well-filled double-discs of the same name, one devoted to small groups; the other, large ensembles. Musically, these discs are superb. The AAJ-NY editors favor the SMALL GROUPS set, which has a mind-blowing sequence by vocalist Phil Minton with Rutherford, Coxhill, John Russell and Roger Turner, and another breathtaking set of Maggie Nicols with her partners as above.
I'm even more excited with the LARGE GROUPS set, featuring an extended set by The Strings, one piece alone and one with Evan Parker, and several works performed by the LIO. The large groups are presented unedited, and benefit from that generosity. The small group performances are largely pared down from longer sets, which account for their high quality. Davidson put in separate track numbers when there were pauses in the music. The audience is amazingly silent and attentive. 'Isn't that what audiences do?' quipped Davidson. 'Maybe the music was so good that they wanted to listen to it. Some people seem to go to jazz gigs with the express purpose of drowning out the music, but this wasn't advertised as jazz.'
Some think Emanem only covers the British front, but recent releases have come from as far afield as Boston and Minneapolis. Most readers probably know Minnesotan Milo Fine as Cadence's curmudgeonly (former) critic, but The Milo Fine Free Jazz Ensemble has been putting out discs on Fine's own label Shih Shi Wu Ai for decades. His new Emanem CD KOI/KLOPS explores sound textures. Pianist/dancer/vocalist Masashi Harada has a powerful duo CD with bassist Barre Phillips on CJR. Boston players in Emanem's MASASHI HARADA CONDANCTION ENSEMBLE (1999) include extended-technique trumpeter Greg Kelley and saxmaster Bhob Rainey, whose name came up with frequency in private audience discussions of favourite sax players at Vision Festival 2002. This disc whispers to roars as this tentet explores the musico-physical connection between dance and music.
I've always been impressed by the colours that come through even some seriously compromised early tapes, and asked Davidson about his engineering. He offers, 'I am basically self-taught, though I have learnt a lot from talking to and observing professionals, and from reading books on the subject. My aim has always been to try and get the recording to sound like the music would if you were just in front of it. My remastering equipment is a fairly ordinary PC, a pair of 35 year old speakers, and a pair of 60 year old ears. I just do the best I can with that. One thing I cannot do is noise reduction - I have to go to a professional for that, and make sure that the noise reduction does not add unwanted artifacts'.
Bruce Gallanter, proprietor of DownTown Music Gallery says of Emanem, 'I haven't heard anything I haven't liked. I give [Davidson] a lot of credit.' In New York, of course, anything by Bailey and Rutherford will sell, and Gallanter reports a developing swell of fans for pianist Howard Riley. New York bizarro saxophonist Mr. Dorgon indicates an affinity with the world of Emanem, saying of Martin Davidson, 'Clearly he is one of those extremely dedicated fetishists who sees to improvised music existing past the moment when it was created bringing information world-wide; clearly insane. More power to him.'"
© STEVE KOENIG 2002
An abridged version of this article originally appeared in All About Jazz - New York
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