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Saturday, December 30, 2023

A Tribute to Martin Davidson (1942 - 2023)

By Martin Schray

2023 was a year of great loss for the world of free jazz and free improvised music. Not only have great musicians passed away, but also label operators such as FMP's Jost Gebers. Martin Davidson also died at the beginning of the month, a man without whom the British improv scene in particular would have been unthinkable. Davidson was responsible for EMANEM, one of the most influential labels of the last five decades, which was also the parent label of Evan Parker’s Psi label.

Many musicians appreciated Davidson not only for his technical expertise in mastering, but above all for his passion for this music and for his sharp humour. His releases were not only professional, they were a testament to his dedication to the craft and the artists he worked with. The careers of Derek Bailey, Anthony Braxton, the Spontaneous Music Ensemble, Evan Parker or John Russell - especially their reception in Europe - would certainly have been different without him.

Damon Smith and Henry Kaiser have published a musical obituary for him, which you can see here:

We have decided to refer to some milestones of EMANEM label. 

Anthony Braxton / Derek Bailey: Duo (1974)

Anthony Braxton and Derek Bailey were not a duo that would have immediately been described as a match made in heaven in 1974. Braxton, despite his very brittle philosophy of improvisation, represented an undeniably American approach, while Bailey was a singular phenomenon even among the abstract Brits. Moreover, both were in a transitional phase. For a while, Bailey had concentrated almost exclusively on extended techniques, pitches and chords were of no concern to him. It almost seemed as if the guitar was just a means to an end. And then they both came up with an album that placed great emphasis on truly collective improvisation and listening to each other in order to create something completely new and unique. That may sound trite today, but the music still sounds so incredibly fresh and homogeneous that you can’t tell how old it is. What is more, it has one of best album covers of all time.

Barry Guy / Howard Riley / Philipp Wachsmann – Improvisations Are Forever Now (1977 - 79) 

Martin Davidson has not only helped new talents to make their way, EMANEM has also re-released outstanding albums on CD for which one would otherwise have had to pay exorbitant prices on vinyl. Improvisation Are Forever Now (1977 - 79 ) is one such album. As I’m a big fan of all three musicians anyway (especially Howard Riley, who I think is always underrated), the choice of this album is no surprise. Riley is the rhythmic and harmonic center of gravity, relying heavily on his trademark clusters. Wachsmann and Guy scrub, saw and scrape around this center with their pizzicatos and glissandos. Like many EMANEM releases, there is a smorgasbord of contrasts here too, with meditative sections and fast-paced musical chases alternating at an incredible speed. The music has often been referred to as “insect music“, but the pejorative connotation contained therein could not be more wrong. Instead, there is great expressivity and energy to marvel at, as well as an extremely subtle shaping of the forms presented.

John Butcher/Phil Durrant/Paul Lovens/Radu Malfatti/John Russell: News From the Shed (1989/2005) 

Another great re-issue. News From The Shed was something like my initiation into what is called improv - and it was radically different from what I knew as (free) jazz or new classical music. With improv there was no planned structure, no preconceived form, the pieces only have the form that they develop spontaneously and the listener has to search for such structures, textures or parameters themselves. It was listening as work, which is why I was very disturbed at first, but then found more and more pleasure in discovering something new with every listen. The music by John Butcher (saxophones), Phil Durrant (violin and electronics), Paul Lovens (drums, cymbals and saw), Radu Malfatti (trombone, zither and accessories) and John Russell (acoustic guitar) is metallic and brittle, but then again organic and real. Crashing and creaking sounds are contrasted with quiet, long tones, it takes a while to discover the beauty of the music, but it is undeniably there. The recording was originally released on the Acta label in 1989. This CD reissue from EMANEM includes four additional tracks from the same sessions, which are of the same high quality as the original album and complement it in that they include some effects not heard elsewhere. 


From Nick Metzger:

Paul Rutherford - The Gentle Harm of the Bourgeoisie

Well, in the album's liner notes Martin Davidson himself said that this one “is probably the finest solo trombone album ever made.” I tend to agree with him, along with Derek Bailey who said “…this is still the best record of solo free improvising you are likely to find.” The liner notes of the CD reissue are full of this sort of praise. I’m still not positively sure that Rutherford wasn’t from a different planet altogether. This album is gloriously wild, subtle, innovative, and funny in all the ways it needs to be - and it still sounds totally fresh. A record for the ages, and a testament to Paul Rutherford’s unique genius.

Evan Parker & Paul Lytton - Three Other Stories (1971-1974)
Evan Parker & Paul Lytton - Two Octobers (1972-1975)

Between 1972 to 1977 Evan Parker and Paul Lytton released 3 albums of wild, experimental electro-acoustic free improvisation before their duo morphed into a trio with Barry Guy and took on a life of its own. The early Parker/Lytton duo albums are worlds apart from their work with Guy, including their work with electronic sounds and noise (with the exception of the first trio album) and can be seen as precursors for Parker and Lytton’s future work in their Electro-Acoustic ensembles. After 1976’s “Ra” there was nothing to hear from the duo until these two releases compiled several live and studio performances from 71-75 into two volumes of never-before-heard manna. These were released in 95 & 96, respectively, and at that time their previous duo releases were long out of print, so these came as a revelation to many.

Evan Parker, Paul Lytton, Paul Rutherford, & Hans Schneider - Waterloo 1985

This one is just a great set altogether with a great quartet, one that sees Parker and Lytton with Rutherford and bassist Hans Schneider - who was working with Lytton at the time - filling in for Barry Guy. The recording is from Le Festival Jazz Et Musiques Improvisees in Waterloo on August 17, 1985. Parker and Rutherford sound amazing, the subtle interactions and playful suggestions keep you coming back. You can tell Lytton and Schneider had a great rapport at the time and it comes through in their careful playing. An excellent record that I highly recommend.


From Fotis Nikolakopoulos:

Spontaneous Music Ensemble –Bare Essentials 1972-3 


There are some recordings that have a big impact on you, the listener. Quite rightfully I should add. Whenever I think about the importance of Martin Davidson’s Emanem, what comes first in mind is Face to Face by SME –a duo at the time consisting, as always, John Stevens and Trevor Watts.

This cd came out in 2007 and is proof that there was a lot more radical material for us to listen. And a label to publish it, a label dedicated to free improvisation. Emanem supported this kind of musical practice without referring to any kind of trends or hip sounds. Connecting Stevens’ liner notes from Face to Face with this double cd, we discover the essentials in non idiomatic music making. Non-hierarchical, produced on the spot, on a constant dialogue between the players, who share a wealth of ideas.

It’s much more than just Essentials, it’s music of the highest order and we have to thank Martin Davidson for letting it out to the world.


From Lee Rice Epstein:

John Carter and Bobby Bradford - Tandem 1 (Enamem 4011) & Tandem 2 (Emanem 4012) (released in a remastered single edition as Emanem 5204) 

John Carter and Bobby Bradford had a rare and beautiful partnership. Musical soulmates, their deep connection led to the recording of some of the most important records in the history of American free jazz, drawing from folk music, blues, American history, and the developments in new music happening from the 1950s all the way until Carter’s death in 1991. But no album quite captures the spark between them as effectively as Tandem, which presents two full concerts, a lengthy set from April 30, 1982, recorded at Worcester’s Piedmont Center for the Arts and a shorter set from October 20, 1979, when the duo played before the Art Ensemble of Chicago at UCLA's Schoenberg Hall. The sets feature Carter and Bradford playing and improvising on highlights from their catalog, including “Echoes From Rudolph’s,” “Circle,” “Angles,” “Woodman’s Hall Blues,” “And She Speaks,” and more. Each of them takes a solo turn, on clarinet and cornet respectively, and these plus the duets are utterly sublime. The two takes of Carter’s classic “Woodman’s Hall Blues” are must-hear for anyone who has spent time with his unique voice. Well worth also checking out Martin Davidson’s own writing for the liner notes, available online at


Reviews by us of Emanem albums (in reverse chronological order). The label released around 258 titles since its creation in 1974 (including re-issues and compilations).

A post scriptum from the label's website:

The programmatic nature of EMANEM 

"The EMANEM label was founded in 1974 in order to publish music too good and too adventurous to be considered by most other labels. In particular, it seemed (and still seems) vitally important to document improvised music that does not use the vagaries of notation as a (somewhat imperfect) means of preservation. EMANEM features improvised music at its very best - unadulterated new music for people who like new music unadulterated. Every CD is a labour of love - every one an important masterpiece - too good to discontinue. (Why waste time, effort and resources on anything less?) Most feature total improvisation, but some use partly composed material. The presentation of each CD and this website concentrates on clarity (as does the music) - there is no desire to emulate the current fashion of obscuring and/or omitting vital information. But then, Emanem is not about fashion, it is about substance."

Emanem is not RAP!

"I have been using the name Emanem since 1974, when the rapper who subsequently chose a similar name was only one year old. Therefore, if anything, it is he who is trying to cash in on my reputation, not vice versa. If you find this situation confusing, then please ask the rapper to change his nom de rap. Every so often I get requests from budding rappers to judge their rap. I reply that I am not qualified to do so, but that I can tell them that their spelling is poor.

I once received an email from a lady in Greece saying that she loved me, but she lost interest when I pointed her to my website!"


Colin Green said...

As has been said, Martin Davidson’s contribution to the improv scene in the UK was enormous and has not really been replaced by a single, dedicated label.

The quality of EMANEM’s releases was very high indeed. Particular favourites of mine are the various “Freedom of the City” box sets — amongst other things tasters for various combinations on the label — the Parker, Guy, Lytton “At the Vortex”, and the two John Russell & Roger Turner albums.

Martin never seemed to get round to a full download service, and given that distribution might now be an issue and many of the CDs have sold out, it’s to be hoped some kind of download deal can be achieved — maybe as Cafe OTO have done with certain labels? It would be a great loss if the catalogue was no longer available.

matt w said...

Very sad to hear this. As Colin said, his role in the UK improv scene was irreplaceable, and many other scenes too.

I got a couple of mail-order batches from EMANEM over the past couple of years as he did seem to be winding down and unloading his back catalogue. Besides the ones people have mentioned, two particular favorite reissues were Russell/Butcher/Durrant's Conceits and SME's Oliv/Familie. Conceits is snappier than the later (also excellent) work by that trio and has some very surprising trombone work by Durrant. Oliv has a quartet piece by Stevens, Watts, Johnny Dyani, and Maggie Nicols, where--well, "perfect" applied to improvised music is a category mistake, but it's perfect.

Thank you to Martin for making so much music available, and like Colin I hope the catalogue will be preserved somehow.