Starting on vinyl in 1974, but more notably on CD since 1995 the London-based Emanem label has been a remarkably consistent and stimulating outlet for free improvised music. Martin Davidson, who runs the imprint, has not only brought to light substantial archival material by the likes of Iskra 1903, Evan Parker and Paul Lytton, Howard Riley and The People Band, but has managed to convey the vitality and scope of current improvising through a catalogue that features such fine and various musicians as John Butcher, Charlotte Hug and Veryan Weston.

21.08 / 2013

In this interview with Julian Cowley, Davidson – poised to re-locate to Spain - reflects on his involvement with this music.

What first sparked your interest in improvised music?

I turned on to what was then Modern Jazz during the late 1950s, thanks to a combination of a friend’s older sister’s record collection, Voice Of America short-wave radio broadcasts, and my trumpet-playing neighbour Tim Bell. At that time I also enjoyed my parents’ world of 19th century “Classical” Music, and extended it to include Bach and Bartók. Listening to all this substantial music meant that I was no longer able to enjoy Pop or Rock.

At the start of the 1960s I often heard the Joe Harriott Quintet at London’s Marquee club, and quite enjoyed their free pieces as well as their Hard Bop. However, Ornette Coleman’s music (on record) still felt wrong – it sounded like Hard Bop but seemed to go off the rails every time an expected corner was due.

The John Coltrane Quintet came to London in 1961, and I enjoyed them so much at the Gaumont auditorium in Kilburn that I saw them again at the Granada in Walthamstow a few days later. The records then available hadn’t prepared us for the looseness of the group, particularly the way Elvin Jones seemed to be playing all around the beat. I confess I didn’t enjoy Eric Dolphy at the time, although since then he has become a favourite (aside from Out to Lunch which sounds as though none of the musicians could hear any of the others.)

For the next few years, I spent most of my Saturday nights listening to neo-Bop at the original Ronnie Scott’s Club and fell in love with Stan Tracey’s piano playing. Once in a while, Stan’s quartet would play a free improvisation. Ironically, his playing on the changes has always felt freer than his playing off. Meanwhile, my record listening extended to earlier Jazz and traditional musics from various parts of the world.

I spent over a year, during the mid-60s, living and working near Philadelphia, and often drove the 90 miles to New York City on a Saturday. I’d stay the night in a dusty $3 dollar hotel or would drive home at 3 a.m. and find myself waking up at 70 mph on the New Jersey Turnpike. Musical highlights included Sonny Rollins playing opposite Memphis Slim at the Village Vanguard, and several nights with the Max Roach Quintet playing sensationally at the Five Spot – that period is represented on record only by Drums Unlimited, which is nice but nowhere near as good as the live gigs. I also remember a Charles Mingus Quintet gig that stopped every time Paul Bley touched the keyboard because the Five Spot piano was so out of tune.

Pep’s and the Showboat were clubs in Philadelphia where the bar was between the bandstand and the audience – in both venues bass solos were drowned out if someone ordered a gin fizz! I heard Coltrane play at Pep’s late 1965 with the “classic” quartet, augmented by Pharaoh Sanders, who seemed to be emitting a steady stream of saliva as well as some very unsaxophonic sounds. There were also three extra drummers – the four drummers playing two at a time. I was a great fan of the quartet but could not relate to this freer music at all.

Then, a few months later, at the Philadelphia College of Art, a group featuring Byard Lancaster and Dave Burrell played a free version of “Maria” (from West Side Story) that I could relate to, and suddenly Free Jazz started making sense. I bought the Impulse compilation The New Wave in Jazz and particularly liked “Holy Ghost” - the Albert Ayler piece, so I then bought his Spiritual Unity and was completely bowled over by this music that used a very different language and sound to Hard Bop. Towards the end of my first American sojourn I heard Ornette’s trio, fresh from their extended European tour, and at that point I enjoyed their music.

Returning to London, I immersed myself during the second half of the 60s in the emerging Free Jazz scene, mainly at the Old Place (vacated by Ronnie Scott’s club, which had moved on to more upmarket premises). I ventured up to the Little Theatre Club late in 1966 and happened to catch the only London performance by the trio Joseph Holbrooke [guitarist Derek Bailey, drummer Tony Oxley and bassist Gavin Bryars] as well as a Spontaneous Music Ensemble gig without John Stevens. Both groups used written heads to kick off their improvisations. The music had its virtues, but I couldn’t get into it; it seemed to be all details with no big gestures.

I became friendly with John Stevens, mainly because we were both Max Roach fanatics. He kept suggesting I listen to his music, which I did from time to time, but it still wasn’t happening for me. Then, in 1971, I went to a concert at Bedford College, in London’s Regents Park, by a Spontaneous Music Ensemble quartet - Stevens, Julie Tippetts, Trevor Watts and Ron Herman. This was a group that combined big Free Jazz gestures with Free Improvisation details, and suddenly I was converted. At that point the music made by Derek Bailey, Evan Parker, Paul Rutherford and others - people who had mystified me five years earlier at the Little Theatre Club - made sense and became the most exciting and original music of the era. Also, I found that previously un-listenable composers like Edgard Varèse and Anton Webern suddenly sounded surprisingly mainstream.

And what then gave rise to the idea of setting up a record label?

Very few people in the world were aware of this unique London improvising scene, so my wife Madelaine (aka Mandy) and I decided to start documenting and disseminating some of it. However, the first record we published was something else. When Steve Lacy came to London in 1973, he brought with him the tapes of his first solo concert, which had been carrying around for several months unsuccessfully attempting to get some record company interested. As soon as I heard them, I knew I had to release them. So my first LP was Lacy solo, with the then obligatory vinyl obligato of excessive surface noise and pre-echo. It was an enormous relief, restarting the label on CDs in 1995, that one no longer had to have all the silences filled with vinyl artefacts.

Has your sense of why you run Emanem and how you run it changed over the years?

Not very much. I still aim to document and disseminate great music that probably would not be otherwise issued. I mainly stick to Free Improvisation and its relatives, as it's generally expected that small labels concentrate on a particular area.

You presumably have a clear set of criteria regarding what material you are willing to release? Can those criteria be put into words? Have they changed over the years?

The decision-making is very subjective. For me there has to be a lot of substance, and a reasonable amount of originality, clarity and consistency. I concentrate on music that I like – I haven't the time or resources to spend on other stuff. I have focussed on Free Improvisation, but every so often have strayed into neighbouring areas. Inevitably, from time to time I change my mind about certain music, either positively or negatively.

Does free playing have a political, maybe an ethical as well as an aesthetic dimension for you?

Free improvisation is very democratic and egalitarian, generally without any greed or any overseer, either present or absentee. If only the rest of society could run like that. Sometimes there are leaders who set bounds. Saxophonist Herman Hauge recently described John Stevens aptly as “an ego-maniac playing ego-less music”. But John often achieved superb results.

Emanem has performed a major role in establishing and promoting a profile for free improvised music. As well as being an invaluable documentary source for anyone interested in this music, the label must at some level also have exercised a shaping and defining influence (probably for established as well as emerging musicians ... and listeners). Is this a situation that you have been conscious of, maybe wary of?

I have often presented superb musicians who haven't reputations. With a few exceptions, I'm not sure my efforts have achieved very much.

Do musicians approach you asking to be recorded or have you tended to form the contacts and suggest releasing their work?

Both. Every musician is a different person. Some are hustlers, some very reticent, some in between. I tend not to like hustlers.

In an earlier interview you remarked, “there is much more electronic technology available for both making and recording music. Personally, I get very little enjoyment out the way this technology is used for making music. I particularly like the sound of unamplified acoustic instruments - if I want to listen to loudspeakers, I can stay at home.” Has your view of this development changed since you made this statement?

I still feel the same. As before, there are exceptions to this. I first heard electronic music in the 1960s, and was fascinated by all the things that could be done that couldn't be done on conventional instruments. However, in spite of enormous advances in technology, the end results don't seem to have advanced since then.

You are self-taught as a recording engineer. Have you found that improvised music has made particular demands on the recording process that you have had to address?

I took up recording in order to document improvised music. I haven't recorded much of anything else, so I can't say how recording improvised music is different, except that one has to try and accommodate any combination of instruments going in any direction. I still occasionally resort to using a professional sound engineer with more experience and more software to try to resolve a tricky problem.

What do you regard as being the most significant developments within the music during the time you have been involved with it?

I don't think the music has changed much – it's nearly all based on one or more of the three modi operandi developed in the 1960s: Free Jazz, AMM and SME. This doesn't mean that it has all become stagnant. There is still a lot of freshness probably because it allows one to express oneself without most of the restrictions of idiomatic music.

There is also a continuous supply of new people, both performers and audience, who manage to find the music even though it receives so little publicity. It's such a difficult thing to pigeon-hole and market, that nearly all money-orientated people instantly give up on it.

One very positive development over the last decade or two is the increase in the number of women playing and listening. There's absolutely no reason why they should not have been there all along, except for the long discredited feeling that women should stay in the home

What have been the key personal and musical relationships in your long involvement with this music?

The musicians I originally developed the closest relationships with were Derek Bailey, Evan Parker, Paul Rutherford and John Stevens, mostly because I got on well both with them and their music. Relationships with others have also been important.

You have mentioned in earlier interviews that you have performed using a reel-to-reel, and that you have a percussion kit but don’t play that publicly. Have musician friends tried to coax you into performing? There must have been many tempting occasions...

I haven't had a kit for over twenty years. I was never really good enough to appear in public, but it was very therapeutic for me – no home should be without a percussion kit! Having said that, I can say, in all modesty, that I have sat through too many performances by people showing less musical talent than me.

London has remained a hub for the label, but have you consciously sought to expand the geographical scope of the label?

I have lived in London most of my life, so I am most familiar with London-based musicians. There are so many fabulous improvising musicians here that there is no real need to look elsewhere even though there are fine musicians in other places. So I have somewhat focused on the London scene, but I’ve branched out when I have heard something good from somewhere else.

I lived in the USA and Australia for some of the 1970s and 1980s, but eventually came back mainly because I missed the improvising scene. Now I am moving to Spain. I'm sure I'll miss the music again, but the cost of living here is too high.

What is the current relationship between Emanem and Evan Parker’s psi imprint?

Evan wanted to start his own label, but he didn’t have much time to do so as he is constantly touring, so he asked if I could help. Basically, he has made the artistic decisions for psi, and I have implemented them. However, this arrangement looks likely to end (amicably) now that I'm about to move abroad again.

How do your sleeve notes and the distinctive design of Emanem packaging reflect the standards and aspirations you bring to the project as a whole?

I aim for clarity and full information rather than fashion. Some people complain about the packaging because it is unfashionable, but the music is not fashionable either – it's too good for that.

Are you still a record collector?

Yes, but I only collect things that I like. Apart from Free Improvisation, that also includes a wide range of Jazz (see, a lot of “Classical” Music, and some traditional musics. I keep coming across more musicians of interest from various eras and various genres. It is impossible to keep up with everyone these days. I imagine that there is a lot of good music that I'm not aware of, but I'm not short of things to listen to.