Music festivals are thick on the ground in Chicago these days, from summer behemoths like Taste of Chicago and Lollapalooza to niche events like the Neon Marshmallow Fest and the Umbrella Music Festival. Record labels have gotten in on the action too, celebrating milestone anniversaries by presiding over lineups drawn from their rosters past and present: Thrill Jockey, Touch and Go, Bloodshot.
This weekend a jazz label is hosting yet another festival, but oddly the presenter isn’t Delmark, Southport, Atavistic, Blujazz, or any of the other Chicago imprints that support the city’s thriving jazz scene—it’s a label from Lisbon, Portugal. Over the past few years Clean Feed Records has emerged as one of the world’s most prolific, adventurous, and consistent outlets for forward-looking jazz and improvised music—it’s established such a gold-plated reputation that fans will buy anything it releases. Ken Vandermark, Charles Rumback, Jason Stein, and Lucky 7s are among the increasing number of Chicagoans with records on Clean Feed, and many others have served as sidemen for non-Chicagoans on Clean Feed sessions.
It might seem strange for all these locals to end up on the same overseas label, but given that Chicago’s jazz scene and Clean Feed Records both have high international profiles—and that few other labels anywhere in the world put out so many top-shelf albums of this sort of music—it was actually almost inevitable. For the inaugural Clean Feed Festival in Chicago, eight bands with connections to the label—including locals Locksmith Isidore, Herculaneum, and the Keefe Jackson Trio—will play Friday and Saturday at the Cultural Center, Heaven Gallery, and the Hideout.
Pedro Costa started Clean Feed in 2001, and in the past few years his catalog has surged to nearly 200 titles. About half his roster is from the States, and predictably most of those artists are New Yorkers; the label has already presented five festivals in New York City, the most recent just last weekend. Costa first came to Chicago in September 2009, visiting with a couple musicians who’d traveled with him to the previous New York fest.
“I loved the relaxed mood of everybody compared to New York. It has somehow a much more European feel, and a much less competitive lifestyle,” he says. “Chicago tends to be more and more an important center for this kind of music, with lots of connections to northern European countries like Sweden and Norway. It has one of the stronger scenes in the world today.”
Costa started thinking early last year about setting up a festival here. For help he turned to jazz drummer and Pitchfork Music Festival organizer Mike Reed. “Pedro had the idea of doing this last September, when they were doing one in New York,” says Reed. “I told him that he’d be getting a late start and it was kind of the worst time to do it because there was already so much stuff happening already.” Reed suggested May, because it would be in advance of the busy summer season.
Reed doesn’t even have any recordings on Clean Feed. “I just can’t say no sometimes,” he says. “Chicago has its players and its scene and its own identity, but it also remains a welcoming place to other people out there.” Plus, as he sees it, helping out visitors can pay off for Chicago musicians when they travel to other countries.
Costa also owns a record shop in Lisbon called Trem Azul (“Blue Train”), which breaks even, and a distribution company that turns a modest profit. He supplements his income by producing about 40 jazz concerts annually in Portugal and across Europe, and that allows him to run Clean Feed as a labor of love—that is, in the red. The label expects to lose money on this festival, just like it does in New York: it’s helping cover the artists’ fees, so they’ll get paid more than just door charges or donations would allow.
For Costa, though, the event is a different kind of investment, and he’s happy with the returns he’s seen so far in New York. “The results have been great,” he says. “We’re trying to create this family spirit about the label and musicians. It’s also a great way to keep in touch with our people, musicians, and audiences.”
Chicago Cultural Center, Preston Bradley Hall 78 E. Washington, 312-744-6630
6:30 PM Keefe Jackson Trio Despite mad skills as a soloist, local reedist Keefe Jackson has sometimes been tentative and disappointing as a bandleader—when calling the shots for the sextet Fast Citizens and the big band Project Project, he’s failed to live up to the potential suggested by his powerful, elastic improvisations. But on the new Seeing You See (Clean Feed), where he leads a quartet with trombonist Jeb Bishop, bassist Jason Roebke, and drummer Nori Tanaka, he finally has the compositions and the structural focus to do justice to his playing. It’s a huge leap for him. He’s written ten sturdy postbop vehicles—swinging, bluesy, elegant, and wide open—whose extended solos are stoked by rhythmic variations and terse interjections from the rest of the group, and for lengthy passages Jackson and Bishop play off each other with preternatural grace. The band will be a trio tonight; Tanaka, a former Chicagoan, has moved back to his native Japan and cut this session during a brief return visit in April 2008.
7:30 PM Ingrid Laubrock, Kris Davis, and Tyshawn Sorey The lineup of this New York trio is mighty intriguing, but its first album, Paradoxical Frog (Clean Feed), is so new I wasn’t able to hear it by press time. On recordings under his own name, versatile and open-eared drummer Tyshawn Sorey merges minimalist rock with Morton Feldman-style pointillistic abstraction, and he wields immense power whether he’s swinging madly or tumbling free of tempo or pulse. Pianist Kris Davis has made a series of excellent albums for Fresh Sound New Talent—the latest is the 2008 quartet outing Rye Eclipse, with saxophonist Tony Malaby—where she likewise connects driving mainstream jazz with idiosyncratic and tempestuous improvisation. And terrific saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock, a German who’s been based in New York for the past few years, has no trouble navigating between cosmopolitan postbop and the brainy, turbulent free jazz she kicked up on the excellent 2008 trio album Sleepthief (Intakt); this is her Chicago debut.
Hideout 1354 W. Wabansia, 773-227-4433 or 866-468-3401, $12
9:30 PM Herculaneum No Chicago outfit embodies the connections between the city’s jazz and rock scenes like Herculaneum, led by drummer Dylan Ryan—whose other projects include Icy Demons, Bronze, and Michael Columbia. Saxophonist Dave McDonnell, Ryan’s bandmate in Michael Columbia, also cofounded Bablicon; flutist and reedist Nate Lepine has played for Cursive, Manishevitz, and Head of Femur, among others. But they’re not just farting around with jazz when they don’t have rock shows to play, and they prove it with their latest album, the superb Herculaneum III (Clean Feed). Ryan’s tunes have never been more elegant, and his resourceful arrangements make the band sound much larger than it is—which is saying something, since the current lineup is a sextet, rounded out by trombonist Nick Broste, trumpeter Patrick Newbery, and bassist Greg Danek. The four frontline players all make excellent use of their solo space—particularly the hot-blowing McDonnell, who’s something of a wild card, and Broste, who’s got a fat tone, a lyrical style, and a broad knowledge of the instrument’s history in jazz. But just as rewarding (and more impressive) is the dense ensemble writing, which not only helps propel the soloists but gives each piece a multifaceted richness, with different sections in the same tune drawing on traditions as disparate as postbop and contemporary classical. Herculaneum also plays Thu 5/13 at Quenchers and Fri 5/14 at Reckless Records on Milwaukee.
10:30 PM Luis Lopes, Jeb Bishop, and Josh Abrams On last year’s What Is When (Clean Feed), Portuguese guitarist Luis Lopes pushes his sound into overdrive—his tone is taut and saturated, almost psychedelic, even when it’s not distorted—but as on his 2008 debut, he doles out notes in measured, thoughtful doses, whether his style is clean and lyrical or dirty and choppy. I’ve only heard Lopes leading two very different groups—on What Is When he’s joined by American bassist Adam Lane and Israeli drummer Igal Foni—so I can’t predict what he’ll do in this trio with trombonist Jeb Bishop and bassist Josh Abrams.
Chicago Cultural Center, Claudia Cassidy Theater 78 E. Washington, 312-744-6630
6:30 PM Memorize the Sky As the excellent trio Memorize the Sky, reedist Matt Bauder, bassist Zach Wallace, and percussionist Aaron Siegel emphasize ensemble interplay: despite their hovering, hypnotizing sound, there’s way too much forward movement and shifting sonic detail on their 2008 album In Former Times (Clean Feed) for it to qualify as drone music. Sometimes the skittery sounds Siegel creates by running objects across the heads of his snare and bass drums—he lays the latter flat like a tabletop instead of using a standard kit setup—are so frenetic they feel almost static, hanging in the air alongside Bauder’s beautifully striated long tones. At other times Siegel plays cymbals and other pieces of metal with a bow, creating keening, resonant shimmers, while Bauder carefully places a series of disconnected notes. The forthcoming Creeks (due on Broken Research late this summer) leans heavily on fluttering reeds and chirping analog synth, and the instruments are electronically processed so that they echo, loop, dilate, and accelerate; the two long pieces that result are the band’s most intricate and entrancing yet. This is Memorize the Sky’s first performance in more than a year.
7:30 PM MI3 Founded in Boston, this veteran trio—pianist Pandelis Karayorgis, bassist Nate McBride, and drummer Curt Newton—hasn’t played too often since McBride moved to Chicago in late 2004. Their repertoire mixes material by the likes of Lennie Tristano, Andrew Hill, and Thelonious Monk with Karayorgis’s own knotty tunes, which bear the influence of those original thinkers; no matter what the song, MI3 approach it with clarity of purpose, a deep rapport, and a fierce streak of unpredictable individuality. On Free Advice (Clean Feed, 2007) their alert interplay rolls along atop jagged rhythms that occasionally manage to swing, and Karayorgis’s idea-packed but spacious improvisations bristle with geometric abstraction and melodic zigzags. Betwixt (Hatology, 2008) changed direction slightly, with Karayorgis switching to Fender Rhodes and the repertoire leaning more heavily on covers, this time by Monk, Sun Ra, Misha Mengelberg, Wayne Shorter, and others. I’m eager to hear what’s next.
Heaven Gallery 1550 N. Milwaukee, second floor, heavengallery.com, donation requested
9:30 PM RED Trio Pianist Rodrigo Pinheiro, bassist Hernani Faustino, and drummer Gabriel Ferrandini, aka Lisbon’s RED Trio, forego tunes entirely to improvise freely, sometimes without any fixed pulse at all and never with anything more than an implied meter. Their recent self-titled debut for Clean Feed is a febrile mix of nubby textures, terse melodic utterances, and pinballing multilinear improvisation. Pinheiro frequently alters the tone of his piano by placing objects inside it or damping strings by hand, turning it into more of a percussion instrument, and his bandmates focus on atomized particles of music rather than slow-growing lines—their rigorously tactile sounds and gnarled phrases vanish as quickly as they emerge. This is the group’s Chicago debut.
10:30 PM Jason Stein’s Locksmith Isidore This trio led by local bass clarinetist Jason Stein—one of the few improvisers who sticks exclusively to that instrument—pushes against the boundary between composition and improvisation. The aim doesn’t seem to be to erase the border, though, but rather to sneak across it: they improvise as through they’re trying to sound like they’re playing a tune, and they play a tune such that you could mistake it for an improvisation. Stein, Chicago bassist Jason Roebke, and New York drummer Mike Pride are better than ever on their forthcoming third album, Three Kinds of Happiness (Not Two), aiming for a more swinging jazz feel. No one’s going to confuse Locksmith Isidore with a Benny Goodman trio, but compared to the squeaky, aggressive abstraction of their first two records, which were both for Clean Feed, the new one is warm, tender, and fluid. Though Pride is known as a wild extrovert, here his playing is gentle and buoyant; Roebke is his usual reliable, flexible self.