A record label can have a special impact on a style, witness the Lisbon-based Clean Feed’s developing relationship to free jazz. It’s the label’s specialty, largely as practiced in New York and environs, though with special attention to Portuguese musicians, sometimes in trans-Atlantic collaboration. The people at Clean Feed seem to be practicing an exalted selectivity about musicians and groupings that’s resulting in some excellent recordings. These three recent CDs by tenor saxophonists present high levels of organization and committed invention, along with a rich humanity of sound and a shared capacity to surprise.
Alipio C Neto is a Brazilian, resident in Portugal. He has recorded in a couple of groups (IMI Kollektief and Wishful Thinking), but this is his debut as leader. Supported by trumpeter Herb Robertson (whose darting, varied lines act as a foil to Neto’s substantial centrality), bassist Ken Filiano, drummer Michael T.A. Thompson and, on three of five tracks, tubaist Ben Stapp, Neto distinguishes himself as both player and composer, with an elegiac nobility of vision that is his defining characteristic. Track one first juxtaposes rapid drumming and improvised trumpet splatters against low tenor blasts; a later theme pitches rapid bass bowing against the horns’ held tones. When Neto finally solos, he’s a radical melodist, creating a continuum of abrasions and graces, building from great low blasts through sudden upper-range skitters and hollow-voiced mid-range lines. Like the first, each of Neto`s compositions contain multiple themes that are welded together by the ensemble, often creating a feeling suspended between through-composition and collective improvisation. Clearly every player here is engaged by Neto’s intensity of purpose, and the results sound like a working band.
Tony Malaby is a very fine saxophonist, a consistently adventurous and intense player who adds to any situation. He’s been particularly good at assuming the foreground in groups led by “background” players, like Mark Helias and Paul Motian. Part of what makes his work compelling is his interest in sonority, and it comes to the fore in this bare-bones trio with Malaby beginning very quietly, restrained muttering and whispering down amidst William Parker’s bass and Nasheet Waits’ drums. It’s that sense of a fully integrated trio that thrives here, as in the tangle of “Floral and Herbacious,” with Parker’s bowed bass and Waits’ sudden punctuations leading the dialogue as much as Malaby. Among the many voices lurking in Malaby’s soprano and tenor, there are oboes and flutes and a human chorus that includes choked, gargling, and shouting voices.
Stephen Gauci’s Basso Continuum is a refreshing group concept, matching the leader’s tenor saxophone with Nate Wooley’s trumpet and the basses of Mike Bisio and Ingebrict Haaker-Flaten in a series of collective improvisations. Gauci possesses a distinctive restraint, his volume and density perfectly matched to Wooley’s trumpet in the extended conversations that occur here. The approach of the two basses is genuinely inspired, with Bisio and Haaker-Flaten create dense, pulsing dialogues, sometimes using the wood of the bow (spizzicato) to mimic drumming. The band is a thoughtful variant on the usual piano-less quartet, leading to long stretches of quietly intense, collective creativity, often with more happening rhythmically than you might expect with a drummer. Gauci’s opening solo on “Ghitta Vilasa (Play of Mind)” gives an immediate indication of his quality of musical thought, ranging from rapid invention to warm, reflective bleat, while Wooley follows using a whistling air-flow of sub-articulated notes to duet brilliantly with bowed bass. It’s a technique from the far shores of improvised music, but it’s the kind of thing that consistently enlivens this exceptional performance.