Sound American interview Pedro Costa

By Nate Wooley
Photo by Vera Marmelo

Some people might consider Pedro Costa as a personality stretching their definition of a custodian of unheard music. Anyone who has been involved in the jazz world in the past 10 years has heard of him or been involved in some way with his record store, Trem Azul, or more likely the label he curates, Clean Feed Records, out of Lisbon, Portugal.

Pedro’s brassy personality and seeming omnipresence on the world music scene; showing up at festivals throughout Europe and America, sometimes presenting Clean Feed artists, sometimes DJing free jazz and disco at after parties, sometimes freely pouring bottles of Portuguese Vinho Verde to a crowd of unsuspecting concert goers, may not fit the classical stereotype of the lone wolf passionate musical pilgrim.

Full disclosure time: I’ve been an artist on Clean Feed almost from the beginning. It’s my personal contacts with Pedro over this time, either about my own recordings, or my work on the label as a sideman, that made his the first name I put on my list when brainstorming the series of label highlights for this custodial issue.

Anyone that knows Pedro, or has encountered him, will easily vouch for his true and honest passion for the music he puts out. There is never a note of insincerity in his exclamations of “a masterpiece!” or “one of the great records of our time” regarding a recent CF release or some gem from another label. The passion is there, but you may be wondering how much of a voice he is for underheard music. It’s this pre-requisite that makes him slightly different than the other musical missionaries featured in this issue. Although Clean Feed does release a lot of recordings by well-established European and American jazz musicians, they do an equal number of work with debut records of cutting edge composers and performers on both continents and pay special attention to the wealth of amazing improvisational talent in Portugal itself, bringing to light such world class musicians as Sei Miguel, Rodrigo Amado, RED trio, Susana Santos Silva, Luis Lopes and many more. It’s specifically Pedro’s passionate commitment to these two subsects of the catalog that I wanted to talk to him about.

As always, I’m beginning and ending each conversation with the same questions for each of our highlights, in order to show the many directions different people’s passions can take them.
SOUND AMERICAN: First of all, can you give me a little background on you and your history with recordings? What was your first experience with music and how did it develop into the business of Clean Feed?

PEDRO COSTA: I started working in record shops in 1989, when I was 18, turning 19. This was a dream come true for me, as I had started buying records in 1978. Since then I become more and more involved with the music. I did some fanzines (small budget homemade magazines) in the early 80s and music was always a home to me through the years.

I had my first record shop with my older brother in the early 90s, and then made a career for myself in shop management as a buyer for Jazz, Blues and World Music at Loja da Música, Fnac and Valentim de Carvalho.

I always loved and trusted labels at the time that labels were becoming more diverse in what they were releasing. Island, Nonesuch, Sire Records, ECM and many others helped me out a lot finding new music and new artists all the time.

Jazz and improvised music became my focus in the mid 80s. By then Dargil (a local Portuguese based company) printed a lot of records here from labels such as Enja, Steeple Chase and ECM and because the LP’s were much cheaper than the imported ones I heard a lot of music from artists as Dexter Gordon, Chet Baker, Archie Shepp, Terje Rypdal, Nels Henning Orsted Petersen, Kenny Drew, Horace Parlan, Ben Webster, Tete Montoliu, Duke Jordan, Jan Garbarek, Keith Jarrett and many, many others.

Then I found out more about open forms in this music through artists as Tim Berne, Gerry Hemingway, Anthony Braxton, Louis Sclavis and working with them today makes me feel the happiest man in the world.

This idea of starting a label was on my mind for many years but in 2000 I thought it was the time to do it. I had learned certain ideas about what I would to do with it since I started to buy records, about the music, design and a way to make it work.

I thought I could come up with something different recording 2 or 3 records a year…

SA: I always think of Clean Feed as a nice mix of more “famous” jazz musicians, young people that are just getting their first break, and especially underheard musicians in Portugal. It seems like you’re almost singlehandedly responsible for bringing modern and free jazz back to the front of people’s minds. Did you and the rest of the folks at Clean Feed really talk about what kind of music you wanted to put out, what things you really wanted people to hear?

PC: I think this mix of more having “famous” and less “famous” musicians on the label all playing great music is the way to make everything work and make sense. I think this works fine for everybody. For example, the more recognized artists have the freedom to do what they want to do on a label that is releasing good and urgent music. For the less popular ones, they put out their music on a label that brings some attention putting out these more “famous” names. Music-wise I think this works really well and in a way that makes me keep doing what I like the most, bringing out music by the great artists that have a lot to say no matter how famous they are.

Actually, we never talked about which ways to go in terms of aesthetics or about names whatsoever. When we started it was just me and my two brothers and then Rodrigo Amado joined us some 6 months later and we were always listening to music together. So, we were taking the whole curation process step by step as we never imagined we would be putting all these records out.

These days things are a bit different because every ones has a different job here. I kind of make most of the curation choices, but we now have a second label called Shhpuma curated by Travassos our graphic designer for projects more out of the improvised world.

SA: What do you think your role is in getting the word out about all these musicians, especially the younger musicians and those from Portugal…not just through Clean Feed, but also with the festival curation you do?

PC: My role is to help keeping this music alive and support its constant development. It’s very important that artists are recognized while they are still alive and creating.

In 1974 Arista signed a contract with Anthony Braxton for several records over 5 years. This was truly amazing as Braxton wrote and played this seminal music.

How important was this kind of situation for Jazz history ?

How many times this happened in the past ?

How many great labels supported their artists over the years ?

ECM, Blue Note, Impulse, Verve, Moserobie, AUM Fidelity, Intakt…

This is the role for a label, and I think that Clean Feed is supporting its artists the best way we can.

Through the curating I do I don’t work exclusively with Clean Feed artists but, of course, they are a big part of my programing mostly because these musicians are a big part of my listening pleasures. For example, right now I’m listening to Angelica Sanchez’s new CF record “Wires & Moss“. Great music.

SA: Do you think of what you do as a business, a passion, or a moral imperative?

That’s a crazy but great question.

I would say it’s a bit of everything.

A business, as I need to find a way to make this go on and on, because this is what I love to do. I really love my life, I hear great music all the time, I travel, I get to meet great people everywhere and I love people. I work with beautiful people everyday at the office/shop. There are friends and musicians coming all the time. We have a rehearsing space that brings here this young generation of very interesting musicians everyday (Gabriel Ferrandini, Pedro Sousa, Manuel Mota, Margarida Garcia, Filipe Felizardo, Bruno Silva but also Rodrigo Amado and Luis Lopes) and we will open a club soon so what can I ask for more ? Money ? Maybe a little bit more would be perfect.

Passion ?

Moral imperative because if you love something so much there will come a time when you should pay back, and I couldn’t imagine staying away from this great era of this music. These times will be remembered as crucial for all kinds or art forms. I found a way to also give something back to the music.

Pedro Costa started to buy LP’s and 45’s by 1978 when he was 9 years old through the influence of his brother, Carlos. After finishing high school in 1988, he had no doubts that my future was somewhere in music.

In 1989 Pedro’s dream came true when he started working in a record shop (Loja da Musica) where he stayed for two years until the shop changed ownership. Then, along with his brother, he started hi own record shop called “Musikametro”, a project that lasted for 2 years. In 1994, Pedro was back to Loja da Musica then to Fnac and Valentim de Carvalho, during which time he was the buyer for jazz for their 28 shops all over the country.

During this period Pedro started curating Jazz and Improvised Music, starting in 2000 with the LX Meskla Festival with artists and bands as Slang, Frederic Galliano, Sei Miguel, Lisbon Improvisation Players and Lee Perry.

In March, 2001 the Trem Azul/Clean Feed project started. In the beginning it was mostly a distributor and a small label that was called Clean Feed through the suggestion of saxophonist Rodrigo Amado.

Since 2003, Pedro has curated a list of festivals and concerts including Jazz ao Centro (Coimbra), Jazz ás Quintas at the CCB – Belem Cultural Center, and also at CCB colaborating with it’s bigger festival at “Os Dias da Música” with 12 artists since 2008.

Also since 2008, Costa has been instrumental to the Portuguese cultural scene by curating a series called “Isto é Jazz?” (Is this Jazz?) at Culturgest in Lisbon showing the multiple faces of improvised music through artists as Steve Lehman, Rudresh Mahanthappa, Sidsel Endresen, BassDrumBone, DJ Olive, Ken Vandermark, Mostly Other People Do the Killing, Nate Wooley/Paul Lytton, Joe Morris/Barre Phillips, Sten Sandell Trio, Michaël Attias Quintet, The Fish, Satoko Fujii, William Parker, Lotte Anker, Fred Frith, Ikue Mori, and Portuguese artists as Sei Miguel, Carlos “Zíngaro”, Nuno Rebelo among many others.

Internationally, Pedro became involved with the Ljubljana Jazz Festival in Slovenia in 2009, and since 2011 he and Bogdan Benigar have co-curated this program.

Clean Feed records is acclaimed everywhere as one of the most compelling labels in the world, voted 7 times as the best Jazz Label on All About Jazz, nominated 4 times for the best label in 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2011 on the Jazz Journalists Association and releasing over 270 records in an intense 11 year activity. Many of it’s releases are voted every year as best of the year lists in magazines and websites all over the globe as Downbeat, Jazz Magazine, Impro Jazz Magazine, Signal to Noise, The Wire, Jazz Times, Village Voice, New York Times, Point of Departure, El Intruso among many many others.


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