Gondwana Records is UK jazz’s Northern powerhouse. The Manchester label launched GoGo Penguin (who were Mercury nominated and became the first British act to sign to Blue Note) and revived fellow Mercury nominees Portico Quartet.
The label was formed in 2008 and has always made a profit, and continues to grow – a remarkable achievement for a supposedly unpopular genre at a time of decline for many record labels. But Matthew Halsall, the trumpeter who founded Gondwana, has upended industry wisdom.
Idealist and entrepreneur: how Halsall’s love of music is matched by his love of the industry
The label’s success lies in the unusual balance of Matthew’s personality. His own albums for the label have a limpid, spacious beauty which follows in the modal tradition of Miles Davis and spiritual philosophies of Pharaoh Sanders and Alice Coltrane. And yet, ever since childhood, he has been equally in love with the music industry. He began playing trumpet aged six. He started a small business reconditioning and selling his school friends’ old bikes at the age of 10. He is as immersed in the lore of Blue Note, Factory, Warp and Ninja Tune’s founders as he is in the artists that they released. The yin and yang of Halsall the idealist and entrepreneur have kept Gondwana fit and healthy.
Snapshot of a scene
“The first vision of Gondwana Records was focused on Manchester,” he recalls, “and on a period of three or four years at Matt & Phreds, when the sax player Matt Nixon was running it.” That basement club is a couple of streets from the bar where we meet on a sunny Manchester afternoon. Halsall recalls a golden generation of locally based players congregating there, many of whom he went on to sign.
“The label started because I knew there was something happening in Manchester, and I loved all the musicians around me,” he explains. “It wasn’t necessarily about me or my ego as an artist. On my albums, there’s a lot of space left for other individuals to shine. The early ones were Matt & Phreds all over. You’d do [jazz standard] 'Footprints' there and it could go to hip-hop or drum’n’bass, or stay on a jazz tip, or go to an ambient, ECM feel. It was really fluid, and that’s what I tried to capture with the first Gondwana albums. My first three and [veteran saxophonist] Nat Birchall’s first three have that world in mind. We played a lot of those tunes at Matt & Phred’s.”
Audience engagement: a new priority for jazz
This open-minded approach to genre was also central to the London scene, which was developing in parallel around players such as Shabaka Hutchings and then exploded into mainstream awareness. Both scenes share a desire to engage with audiences, a shift that has led to jazz’s current renewed popularity.
“Jazz had got institutionalised,” Halsall believes, “passing solos around endlessly, and doing covers and not caring about them to the same level as the people who started it all. It was formulaic and stale. I wanted to write my own music, that represented me and people around me, and I wanted the audience to be part of it. The attitude of forgetting that you’ve got an audience and doing whatever you want on stage really upsets me. There’s no point doing a gig if it’s not about everyone in that room. I’ve had experiences with my music, luckily, where everyone’s connected and smiling, and dreaming and drifting in different ways as they listen. They understand how you’re feeling, and you understand how they’re feeling, just through an atmosphere in a room.
“I’m still friends with people who were in the audience,” he says gratefully, “and it had a massive impact on my confidence levels. Because I’m quite an anxious, shy, reclusive character, that doesn’t really like being onstage anyway. And a lot of people said, you’re doing something unique, and you’ve got to continue.”
Building a label with a Blue Note ethos
Gondwana was born from such heady nights. But it was built by five years of practical preparation, before a record was even released.
“We were never driven by money,” Halsall remembers. “We had a lot of musicians who gave up their time and put their heart and soul into making the first records, and an engineer, Brendan Williams, who did it on a shoestring budget. My brother Daniel does the art and design. We had this idea of a Blue Note approach, making live records with very little multi-tracking and limited mixing. That kept our costs down. And we have a really good distribution company with a focus on the digital world, so when other companies went bust, we had a good understanding of the modern industry. Our streaming sales are very high. Also Amazon and iTunes and Apple Music really supported us, which was massive. So there was a lot of infrastructure which we built before the record company started. Then we kept the costs low, and the quality high.
“Nowadays, we are much more adventurous financially, and spend a lot of money and time in high-end studios, and on vinyl manufacturing. We started the company with £1,000, and now it’s VAT registered, and we’re signing artists from all over the world.”
Why jazz musicians need “a hunger to tour”
Halsall also relies on his artists’ equal commitment to the business of being heard. The way he tells it, the new requirements the industry’s reduced circumstances makes of musicians can be good for them. “Bands that tour religiously sell more records than bands who sit at home,” he says. “A hunger to tour is absolutely essential if you want to get paid for the records you make. GoGo Penguin, Mammal Hands and Portico Quartet play 30-70 gigs a year, and if they’re not touring they’re writing. Even if you think about The Beatles early on, a lot of jazz musicians now would turn their noses up at the gigs they played in little mill towns up and down the north-west. It was a brutal, hard-working industry. For every artist now, the first year of touring is hard, but if you put down good foundations and work, you’re going to have a good life.” Such efforts are split “50/50” with the label. “The responsibility is to equal that from my side. At some point my head will explode with the responsibility.”
How Halsall burnt himself out
Halsall is good company, but like many artists struggles with self-consciousness and self-esteem. “I’ve ended up onstage in front of 2,000 people,” he ponders. “I feel an immense responsibility for everyone’s night. I care about that to the point that it can cripple me.”
This relentlessly pressurised double-life as musician and boss can get too much. “I had a tough time on tour when I’d bought a house, was renovating it, and running a record label,” he recalls, “and playing in Canada, America and Europe all in the same month. It got to a point where the gigs were really difficult. I’m an all or nothing character – when I gig, I like to be 100% in that world, and I wasn’t. I was playing in front of bigger and bigger audiences, and having less and less time to prepare. It couldn’t keep going at that rate. I just burned myself to the ground”.
The screaming trumpets that set him on his path
All the sides of his complicated life are partly rooted in his upbringing, initially in Lees, outside Manchester, where his art teacher dad and entrepreneur mum had a front room draped in Eastern wall-hangings, with a piano and record player as its central shrines.
“My mum’s quite spiritual, my dad is more straight-up,” he says. “They were both influential.” Hearing screaming trumpets on a family Sunday afternoon outing to a Wigan jazz club set him on his path aged six. Gondwana was then named after his mum’s furniture shop, which imported from India, China and Africa.
“My mum explained what Gondwana [the name of a prehistoric supercontinent] meant to her. It’s about forgetting the world’s lines and borders and being connected as one. I loved that. I really don’t like rules and borders. I’m in love with cultures and art from all over the world. I don’t see it as us and them.”
Stripped back and soulful: the modal jazz of Miles and Coltrane
The appeal of the modal music of his early albums, with its meditative lack of chordal movement, also connects to Halsall’s beliefs. “Fast music doesn’t suit my brain,” he says. “Also, I love to give the musicians on my records something stripped back, because more of their personality comes out. That’s what I love about 'Kind Of Blue'. It’s my favourite record, that and Cannonball Adderley’s 'Somethin’ Else' [which shares many of the same musicians]. Hearing players like Cannonball so stripped back and soulful, that’s what I was always chasing. And Bill Evans and John Coltrane, with Miles Davis. There’s very few points where each of them sounds like that in the rest of their careers. There’s a deep respect and thoughtfulness to their music together. That’s important to me. Not how quickly you can play the saxophone.”
Running a record label
Halsall’s modesty, suspicion of ego, and the distractions of running a label have kept his own lovely music under-sung. The satisfaction of a night of high communion with a crowd is sometimes matched by life as Manchester’s jazz mini-mogul.
“It’s not like being a parent, but you are a figure of support for musicians that lets them have life-changing opportunities. I hope I’ve been able to give people who are similarly left of centre of jazz an opportunity they wouldn’t otherwise get. I love the family element of running a record label. And I can’t thank the artists enough for trusting me.”
Listen to Matthew Halsall on Spotify