Jazz Blog reviews by Peter Hum

Labels we love VI: Clean Feed

A while back, my fellow jazz journalist *** musician *** dayjobber Bernard Stepien professed to me that he was much better schooled in the avant-garde music of the 1960s and 1970s, and much less conversant with today’s shape of jazz to come. My response to him was: “You should check out what’s on Clean Feed.”

That’s the name of a prolific, nine-year-old Lisbon-based record company, recognized as a leading label by the post-free jazz connoisseurs. According to the Clean Feed website, its 150 recordings are “innovative contemporary jazz projects that can make a difference, building a catalogue that will be internationally recognized by its quality and coherence.” Today, I’ll consider three recent Clean Feed discs, which are admittedly a very small sample to take the measure of the label. 

In addition to recordings by many lesser known but accomplished North American and European players, Clean Feed has released several discs by some of the avant-jazz scene’s established players. Among them is Things Have Got to Change, from reedman and composer Marty Ehlrich. He’s a multi-instrumentalist in his mid-50s who writes for and performs in a variety of instrumentations, and his collaborations with such Association for the Advance of Creative Musicians (AACM) stalwarts as  Muhal Richard Abrams, Leo Smith and Leroy Jenkins go back to the late 1970s. Ehrlich’s Clean Feed disc finds him limiting himself to playing alto saxophone and leading his Rites Quartet, which includes trumpeter James Zollar, cellist Erik Friedlander and drummer Pheeroan Aklaff, all established and admired players in the segment of the jazz community where playing on changes and grooving hard meld with departures from harmonic constraints and other colourful flourishes. Things Have Got to Change consists of five Ehrlich compositions and three by his avant-jazz elder, the saxophonist Julius Hemphill. Throughout, the music is filled with simpatico and vivid expression, as the moods change from tranquil to jagged to urgent to funky — it often feels celebratory.

The disc’s first two tracks are engaging, medium-tempo free-boppers — Rite Rhythms is driven by Friedlander’s groovy ostinato and Aklaff’s minimalist percussion, while Dung, an unrecorded Hemphill composition,  swings as Friedlander plucks quarter notes. Ehrlich and Zollar are both riveting players, alternating liquid lines and piercing cries. Some Kind of Prayer is naturally more sombre, with Zollar’s horn muted and Friedlander picking up his bow for Ehrlich’s hymnal theme. After On the One’s austere bowed cello introduction, Ehrlich and Friedlander state the song’s theme and spin bracing, intertwined melodies. Hemphill’s Dogon A.D. blends odd meter and dissonance with gutsy blues and funk.

I’m very much enjoying the hard-rocking, imaginative and evocative disc Voladores  from Tony Malaby’s Apparitions. Malaby’s a saxophonist in his mid-40s whose combination of brawn, tenderness and unfettered creativity has landed him gigs with John Hollenbeck’s Large Ensemble, Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra, Paul Motian’s Electric Bebop Band and other impeccablly inside-and-outside-the-box groups. Malaby’s group Apparitions includes three extremely versatile musicians — bassist Drew Gress, drummer Tom Rainey and drummer John Hollenbeck, who plays not just drums but also marimba, glockenspiel, xylophone and vibraphone, melodica — a whooshy mood-maker in his hands — and even “small kitchen appliances.” As you would expect, the music is always richly textured.

Malaby’s disc is continually delightful, with a masterful mix of direct playing and structural surprises, primal melodies and deep, yet intriguing grooves. The musicians are extraordinarily connected — the evocative music feels less like a parade of solos and more like a succession of group passages, even as Malaby and company tinker with our expectations in terms of how the songs evolve (The standard arcs for a song’s flow of intensity don’t apply on Voladores — and that’s a good thing.) Sour Diesel, Old Smokey and Los Voladores  in particular pack an appealing blend of earthy rhythms and mystery and ought to woo discriminating alt-music listeners. I especially like the programmatic pleasures of Dreamy Drunk, with its slow, baleful beginning giving way to an echo-enhanced stretch of drum-n-bass, which in turn yields to a surprising, rocking conclusion.

Equally brash and mysterious  — despite its title — is Canada Day, from drummer Harris Eisenstadt, a New York-based Canadian expat. Eisenstadt’s joined by trumpeter Nate Wooley, tenor saxophonist Matt Bauder, vibraphonist Chris Dingman on vibraphone and bassist Eivind Opsvik for a set of originals. While these players may be lesser known, they’re do-it-all musicians to a man, balancing sophisticated harmonic playing with more timbrally motivated sounds to create some mighty expansive music. Given this lineup of instruments and how the musicians choose to play them, it’s hard not to think of such mid-1960s inside/out classics as Eric Dolphy’s Out to Lunch and Jackie McLean’s Destination Out as big-time influences. However Eisenstadt’s music has a contemporary cast too, especially on the fractured funk of After an Outdoor Bath. That track features some especially expressive, hyper-vocal tenor work from Bauder that to me brings to mind both Wayne Shorter and Sam Rivers. Not to be out done, Wooley incorporates sputtering, wheezing and screeching into his solo, to fine effect. Kategeeper is a jumpy, angular, broken funk groover that keeps tensions high. More tranquil and spacious, although nonetheless foreboding, is Eisenstadt’s Halifax. 

That’s a live version of Sentinel, a slow and heavy Masson composition that appears on his quartet’s CD Thirty Six Ghosts. Joining Masson are Colin Vallon playing electric piano, acoustic bassist Patrick Moret and drummer Lionel Friedli for a set of tunes that pull ever so naturally from free jazz, rock, pop to create a wonderfully disorienting blend. Like the North American musicians mentioned above, Masson and his countrymen are intrepid sonic explorers. The disc’s opener, Sirius, supplies emotional complexity from the get-go, with Masson spins melancholy and increasingly urgent lines over floating electric piano chords, burbling bass and clattering drums and cymbals. Le Phasme  is a slow, spare, altered-state song with a patient, shimmering solo by Vallon setting up a cresting turn by Masson. Hellboy is dense, messy, funky and chunky, with Vallon uncorking long lines and distorting his machine’s sound before Masson joins him for the angular theme. Bermuda is all about mixed-meter mysteries, with just a hint of blues, thrown in. Closing the disc is Yurel a plaintive rock ballad — its directness and unabashed lyricism leaven one’s listening after the darker preceding tracks.

Finally, I’ll mention Palace Ghosts and Drunken Hymns, from the Will Holshouser Trio, joined by the Portuguese pianist Bernardo Sassetti. Holhouser’s a New York accordionist, who has been working with trio-mates David Phillips on bass and trumpeter Ron Horton for a dozen years. Their collaboration with Sassetti is the most tuneful of the Clean Feed discs I’m considering today, riddled as it is with strains of folk and classical chamber music. But there’s edginess and lots of improvisatory gusto as well, not to mention plenty of timbral awareness. I like the stately tinge of Danca Palaciana and playfulness of Dance of the Dead. Department of Peace is an understated but moving ballad filled with clear, rich harmonies and Horton’s affecting, pure horn — a song in search of a foreign movie.

In a bit of cross-platform collaboration, I’ve handed these discs, as well as others by Clean Feed, to Stepien, who will be playing selected tracks on Rabble Without A Cause, his CKCU radio program, tonight (Jan. 13) at 11 p.m. Click here to catch the show on the Interweb.

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