Whether it’s the glut of CDs or readily-made self-releases, these are daunting times for smaller creative labels, with some reducing their output significantly. In contrast, Clean Feed, the Portuguese label launched in 2001, has been pushing forward with what is likely the most ambitious current release program in the areas of free jazz and improvised music. The label marked 2008 with 36 releases, including such highlights as Belle Ville by the Townhouse Orchestra (Evan Parker and the Sten Sandell trio) and two extraordinary duet projects by Joe Morris, the first a 4-CD set with Anthony Braxton, the second a sublime interaction with Barre Phillips. The sheer numbers and the prominence of a few artists can mask some of the label’s most interesting qualities: its willingness to promote the work of lesser-known artists and its genuine diversity in both locale and style. These five discs indicate some of that diversity, ranging from muscular to cerebral.
The Fredrik Nordström Quintet is a tightly-knit Swedish band with immediate affinities to the mid-60s Blue Note school. On Live in Coimbra, recorded at Clean Feed’s Jazz ao Centro festival in 2005, the tenor saxophonist/leader’s compositions present briskly stimulating platforms for intense group dialogues, with vibraphonist Mattias Ståhl and drummer Fredrick Rundqvist perhaps inevitably suggesting Bobby Hutcherson’s spacious, sustained dissonances and Tony Williams’ poly-melodic drumming. Trombonist Mats Äleklint is a fine match for Nordström: they’re both hearty, even boisterous players, with big sounds and fine minds, and the conversational component (Äleklint can create engaging dialogues with himself) makes this far more than a revisitation of an older style. That sense of loose conversation shapes “No Longer,” with Nordström joining Äleklint for some rousing collective improvisation before the two cede to a thoughtful solo by bassist Torbjorn Zetterberg. Including a warmly lyrical cover of Bjork’s “Cocoon,” the music gives a sense that it’s being created in the frictions and possibilities of the moment, its pre-ordained patterns functioning as points of discussion.
Angelica Sanchez doesn’t record often, which makes Life Between something of an event. In addition to her usual trio partners—husband and tenor saxophonist Tony Malaby and drummer Tom Rainey–, she’s joined here by guitarist Marc Ducret and bassist Drew Gress in a program of Sanchez compositions that are marked by a near-improvisatory fluency, light lines that seem to arise and flow, unfettered by the hard edges of forethought or structure. The group responds with some brilliant playing, Ducret coaxing his electronic sound to dovetail with Malaby’s tenor and Sanchez’s acoustic and electric pianos. So strong is the affinity that identities shift around among the three, Malaby achieving a sustained bee-buzzing on “Black Helicopters” that builds in intensity at the same time that it builds electronic ambiguity. Whether they’re intense or pastoral, the disc abounds in riveting moments, like the lambent dialogue between Sanchez and Gress on “SF 4” or the four-way pull of rhythms and densities that Ducret, Sanchez, Gress and Rainey achieve on “Blue and Damson.”
Malaby turns up as well on Ancient and Future Airs, matching his tenor and soprano with leader Paul Dunmall’s tenor and bagpipes, Mark Helias’s bass and Kevin Norton’s drums and vibraphone. Given the palpable heft of the Dunmall and Malaby tenor sounds, you might expect a blow-me-down free jazz bloodbath; if so, you’ll be redirected. There’s a certain similarity to the sanctified ’60s pairing of John Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders, but it’s usually in its lyrical form, some dovetailing modal lines with flute-like sounds. One passage of extended blowing is contrapuntal in nature, with plenty of close listening. Some of the most moving moments are at relatively low volume, as in the subtly Eastern pairing of Malaby’s soprano and Dunmall’s bagpipe. You can catch the group’s inner dynamic when the two tenors drift gently into Helias’s bowed harmonics. The 49 minute “Ancient Airs” and the ten minute “Future Airs” are aptly named, for a certain airiness takes in the whole performance, from the grain of tenor sounds to the sparkle of Norton’s cymbals and vibraphones.
There’s a marked contrast to the forms and linearity of free jazz in Memorize the Sky, the trio of Aaron Siegel on percussion, Matt Bauder on tenor saxophone and clarinet, and Zach Wallace on bass. Together since their student days in Michigan, the three favor a drone-based minimalism more common in Europe than America. It’s a style they explore with fine results, developing dense grain in “I am the founder of this place” with a mix of circular breathing and bowed bass, bells and cymbals. The variety that the three achieve in what might seem like a constricted approach is consistently rewarding, accumulating microscopic evolutions of sound to create transformations before your ear.
Testing rather than jettisoning conventions, Tetterapadequ is a young European band that’s genuinely exploratory, willing to test approaches from a jazz-based rhythmic concentration to solo interludes and even a period of extended silence. It consists of two Italians (tenor saxophonist Daniele Martini and pianist Giovanni di Domenico) and two Portuguese (bassist Gonçalo Almeida and drummer João Lobo), but the key geographical point is the Netherlands. The band’s name is a near-anagram of De Patter Quartet, named for a favourite jazz club the quartet attended while students at a Dutch conservatory. Each is a player of substance, with Martini possessing a marked vocal force and rhythmic imagination and Di Domenico, showing a marked classicism that extends to Satie-like reflections. Almeida presses extended techniques while Lobo adds consistent interest with alternately dense and sparse sonic fields. Tetterapadequ’s eclectic wit suggests the Dutch scene in which they met, while the textures may recall the early work of Giorgio Gaslini, thanks largely to Di Domenico’s ironic classicism.