ACV: Busk
Babel Label

Bruno Heinen Sextet: Karlheinz Stockhausen's Tierkreis
Babel Label

Human: Being Human
Babel Label

Lacuna: Talk On The Step
Babel Label

Four recent releases from the Babel Label, which was founded in 1994 by Oliver Weindling and primarily issues jazz albums by UK artists, provide a good overview of the label's range, with Human giving us avant-jazz, Busk jazz-rock, Lacuna high-spirited quintet playing, and Bruno Heinen an inspired jazz take on Karlheinz Stockhausen's music.

Led by Irish-born drummer and composer Stephen Davis, the bass-less quartet Human catches one's ears immediately for its unusual line-up, with pianist Alexander Hawkins and trumpeter Alex Bonney joined by Dylan Bates on violin. Echoes of Albert Ayler's ‘60s outfit (featuring Dutch violinist Michel Samson) or Billy Bang are never too far away as one digs into Being Human's six free jazz-styled pieces, two of them improvs and the others Davis originals.

An exercise in aural cubism, “Frozen Goat” allows all four musicians ample room to maneuver as they navigate its enigmatic staircase melodies, sometimes voicing them directly and at other times treating them more elastically. While a general sense of looseness and abandon characterizes the group's playing, the improvs are naturally even more free-form, turbulent even. On the title track, Hawkins and Bonney seem to channel Cecil Taylor and Lester Bowie, respectively, in their wild and blustery expressions, while Bates's high-pitched sawing calls to mind Ornette Coleman's raw playing.

“Little Particles” charts a quieter and more sober foray into chamber playing, with Bonney donning a mute and Davis exploiting his kit's percussive potential to textural effect. Splashes of humour, on the other hand, infuse “Cartagena,” and Human even sneaks a bit of funk into its rendering of the material. The quartet's debut album is short at thirty-three minutes but rewarding nonetheless, especially when the sonorities on display are so distinctive and the playing so bold. That Being Human also concentrates on the style and spirit of ‘60s free jazz that flourished before the onset of fusion and Marsalis-driven neo-Conservatism also makes Human's sound a more-than-welcome one.

Guitarist-composer Dan Messore issued Indigo Kid on Babel to positive notices in 2012 and now follows it with his second release as a leader, this time under the band name Lacuna. Talk On The Step sees Messore surrounding himself with a stellar cast of acoustic jazz musicians, specifically Steve Waterman on trumpet and flugelhorn, Lee Goodall on flute and alto sax, bassist Aidan Thorne, and drummer Ollie Howell. The thing one notices first about the hour-long album's material is its uplifting, sunlit character, a quality never more evident than in the opening “Mariposa.” Ably powered by Howell's imaginative attack, the tune's joyous charge is led by flute, muted trumpet, and the fingerpicking splendour of Messore's acoustic guitar solo. Flute and muted trumpet solos follow, the energy level never waning and the exuberant spirit extending throughout the ten-minute piece. “Mariposa” and the later “A Bit of Light” show that, while the band's sound isn't what one would call experimental, its purely acoustic sound nevertheless washes over the listener like a fresh summer breeze.

The relaxed title track suggests that Messore and company have thoroughly absorbed jazz's roots, as the piece, guided by Thorne's walking lines and Howell's brushes, stylistically references be-bop and ‘50s jazz. A funk-rock feel works its way into the beginning of “Wowge” until a shift into ‘60s jazz mode occurs and Waterman embarks on a smooth Miles-ian solo and Messore follows with a legato solo emblematic of the jazz guitar tradition. A subsequent Goodall solo sequence hints that with a tricky time signature worked into position the music might start to resemble a Steve Coleman M-Base composition. Goodall also tears into the Wayne Shorter-influenced (Messore's own acknowledgement) “Shortcomings,” before easing the album out with a muted Waterman on the bluesy closer “Missing.”

It bears worth mentioning that though the band is very clearly Messore's—all eight pieces are composed by him—he's hardly the lead player. Instead, he treats himself as one voice of five, and Lacuna comes across as a band in the fullest sense of the word. The musicians are uniformly excellent—Waterman and Goodall are marvels throughout, and Howell was even the recipient of a ringing endorsement from none other than Quincy Jones, who described him as “an unbelievable drummer.” Listeners with a jones for breezy acoustic jazz spiked with strong bop flavour should find Talk On The Step to be a satisfying outing indeed.

The brainchild of double bassist-composer Andy Champion, ACV is a heavy-hitting quintet whose sound occasionally suggests some modern-day variant of a prototypical ‘70s jazz-rock (with a touch of prog worked in for good measure). On Busk, the fifty-two-minute follow-up to ACV's 2010 debut Fail In Wood, a Mahavishnu-like quality pervades some tracks—even if Graeme Wilson's oft-robust saxophone playing appears in place of Jerry Goodman's violin—and “Never Ever” even calls to mind “Diamond Dust” from Jeff Beck's 1975 release Blow By Blow. One might be forgiven for thinking of Miles-era Joe Zawinul or Jan Hammer when presented with Paul Edis's electric piano sound in “Degree Absolute”; in addition, guitarist Mark Williams often breathes McLaughlin-esque fire on the album's eight pieces, while Wilson plays with the full-throated attack of a Gary Thomas.

Powered by drummer Adrian Tilbrook, ACV's sound is, in a word, muscular, especially when it digs into heavy material such as “Degree Absolute” and “Giant Mice,” the latter a memorably funky vehicle for Wilson's baritone sax as well as rapid round-robin soloing. But there's also a delicate side to ACV, as evidenced by “Second Season,” wherein Wilson shows off his feathery ballad tone, and “Never Ever,” a wintry moodpiece elevated by Edis's sensitive acoustic piano playing and Champion's bowing.

As impressive as the preceding albums are, the shiniest jewel in this particular Babel crown is Karlheinz Stockhausen's Tierkreis as realized by the Bruno Heinen Sextet. On this superb collection, the London-based pianist Heinen leads a band featuring trumpeter Fulvio Sigurtà, bass clarinetist James Allsopp, tenor saxist Tom Challenger, bassist Andrea Di Biase, and drummer Jon Scott through a jazz-styled interpretation of the composer's 1974-75 work Tierkreis. The title, which translated refers to the signs of the zodiac, figures significantly into the tone row-based work's structure, as the composition features twelve melodies, each one representing one of the star signs. Adding to the work's distinctiveness, Tierkreis originally was written for twelve music boxes as part of a children's theatre piece called Musik im Bauch (Music in the Belly).

There are certain guidelines the musician is instructed to follow—a given performance must start with the melody associated with the star sign that coincides with the performance date, and the presentation should proceed through all twelve signs before ending with a recapitulation of the opening melody—but Stockhausen also designed the piece so that it could be played by any instrument or combination of instruments. It's a perfect vehicle, then, for someone with Heinen's visionary bent; it's also a natural choice, given that his classical-musician parents, cellist Ulrich Heinen and violinist Jacqueline Ross, performed the piece with Stockhausen in the ‘70s.

The recording begins with the sound of a music box being cranked, after which the haunting “Aries” theme is voiced by the music box and piano in a captivating duet that highlights Heinen's delicate touch and technical command. Thereafter, the group covers multiple bases, from fiery blowing (the militant “Leo” and funky “Scorpio”) to sensitive ballad renderings (“Gemini”), with some pieces accentuating improv and others intricate arrangements. In a lovely small-group treatment of “Gemini,” Challenger's burnished tenor gives the piece a late-night feel that's sensitively supported by Heinen's piano, Di Biase's bass, and Scott's brushes. The band wraps the bluesy “Cancer,” on the other hand, in an intricate arrangement that still allows ample room for Sigurtà and Heinen to solo. In a few instances, the group veers away from a jazz approach for something more conservatory-styled, such as “Virgo,” a contemplative setting for trumpet, piano, and musical box, and “Capricorn,” which sees Allsopp and Sigurtà taking splendid solo turns.

No listener coming to the recording need be intimidated by its background details, as Heinen and company make Stockhausen's music as accessible as it could possibly be. In their hands, the material turns into inspired jazz ensemble settings that feel in no way constrained by Stockhausen's writing. An occasional music box appears to re-affirm the work's originating identity, but for the most part the album's a fifty-five-minute document of free-flowing exuberance. The playing is at a consistently high level, and the album is an absolute delight from start to finish, one that can be admired on conceptual grounds as well as enjoyed at the immediate, purely musical level. Babel spared no expense in the release's presentation either, as Heinen's disc is complemented by a vibrant sleeve design and accompanied by an equally striking poster, whose playful display is an ideal complement to the music.

June 2013