Four on Clean Feed: Darren Johnston, Luis Lopes, Daniel Levin, Avram Fefer
Darren Johnston – The Edge of the Forest (CF 133)
Since its 2001 beginning in Lisbon, Portugal, Clean Feed Records has amassed a mind-numbingly large catalogue, with nearly 150 releases to their credit. Though initially the label skewed towards Portuguese locals in both avant garde and mainstream fields, their modus operandi now covers the globe with artists from Scandinavia, Japan, the United States, Germany and Canada. When this writer interviewed label proprietor Pedro Costa in 2003, his hopes were to release music by big names like Cecil Taylor, William Parker and Peter Brotzmann. Clearly, it’s been a far more fruitful venture to make Clean Feed into a home for the unsigned and under-represented. Thus, followers of the label have the opportunity to hear a diverse array of improvisers; players like West Coast trumpeter Darren Johnston, Lisbon-based guitarist Luis Lopes and New York regulars, cellist Daniel Levin and reedman Avram Fefer are just a scratch to the surface.
Johnston, a Canadian now based in the Bay Area, isn’t probably as close to a vanguard household name as he could be. He has worked with Fred Frith and the Rova organization as well as directing the United Brassworkers Front, but The Edge of the Forest is only the second disc to feature his name across the sleeve. He’s ably supported here by clarinetist Ben Goldberg, tenorman Sheldon Brown, bassist Devin Hoff and drummer Smith Dobson on seven originals, vamp-heavy but with tight, woody arrangements. Johnston’s tone is particularly incisive—bright and detailed, but with a cutting projection equal parts Woody Shaw and Ted Daniel. “Foggy” adds accordionist (and regular collaborator) Rob Reich to the proceedings, granting a lush and sometimes otherworldly drone to biting rhythmic bounce and keening woodwinds. One thing that holds true throughout is that Johnston’s writing gives an illusion of size and breadth far beyond the five or six players present.
Portuguese guitarist Luis Lopes is joined by Israeli drummer Igal Foni and East Coast bassist Adam Lane on What Is When, another notch in the proliferating subgenre of guitar-based improvised power trios of late, along the lines of Scorch Trio or Adam Caine’s group. The difference here being that Lopes is about as far as one can get from a pyrotechnical guitarist, hanging back with muted, gritty lines and fields of delicate introspection fleshed out by Lane’s throaty pizzicato and a constant burble of activity from Foni’s kit. Linear repetition, bluesy fragments and worrying isolation pepper Lopes’ improvisation on “Spontaneous Combustion,” though despite a sparse aesthetic worldview, by no means is this a ‘quiet’ trio. “The Siege” offers one of Lopes’ flitting and quizzical singsong melodies, of the sort so brilliantly fleshed out with saxophonist Rodrigo Amado in the Humanization 4tet. Split off into areas of grungy and electronically-altered arco and punchy rhythms, the tune’s melodic rejoinder is both unifying and perversely off-kilter.
Cellist Daniel Levin has been a member of the New York improvising community for the better part of a decade; following discs for hatOLOGY and Riti, Live at Roulette is his second disc for Clean Feed and his first for the label with his working quartet. With him are vibraphonist Matt Moran, trumpeter Nate Wooley and bassist Peter Bitenc (replacing Joe Morris) for ten collective improvisations, which continually break the unit down into micro-areas of solo and duo playing. Subtracting a drummer from the proceedings begs a sort of ‘chamber’ aesthetic and that’s partially true here, though the quartet often puts forth a tremendous amount of forward motion, introduced through Moran’s vibes and electronic resonance on “Matt,” subtonal cello growling and ponticello scrapes leading into brassy scrawl, teetering on the edge of ‘noise’ but for an extraordinary amount of clarity. “Delicate” begins with paper-thin breath and glassy sustain, Levin’s cello part echoing the quieter moments of Kodaly’s “Suite for Unaccompanied Violoncello”; indeed, the most commanding moments of the set might come from improvised Janos Starker-isms.
Reedman Avram Fefer is probably the longest-term fixture in creative music of any of the players represented by these four discs. Ritual is his first for Clean Feed, however, and features him in a power-trio format with bassist Eric Revis and drummer Chad Taylor on nine original tunes (including dedications to saxophonist Archie Shepp and the late conceptual artist Blinky Palermo). This writer’s first exposure to Fefer was hearing him put through his paces by the kaleidoscopic runs of pianist Bobby Few. Ritual is an opportunity to hear the leader’s brusque, burnished improvisations put a rhythm section through some of his own. Certainly Revis and Taylor are up to the task—the drummer’s dry shuffle is a perfect counterpoint to Fefer’s cottonmouthed cry on the opening “Testament” while Revis is rock-solid meat, unmovable propulsion no matter how ragged and loose things get. That’s especially true on tunes like “Shepp in Wolves’ Clothing,” where Fefer mines two-horn territory, more in the vein of Peter van der Locht than George Braith and plugging Monk, the New York Contemporary 5 and his own wit throughout.