Saturday, February 20, 2010

A Whole Bunch of New Stuff from Clean Feed

A fat envelope arrived last week from Clean Feed Records, the Lisbon-based label specializing in creative improvised music whose name has become as reliable a guarantor of quality for this jaded listener as Smog Veil and Aztec Music are, in different ways. Here's what they sent.

Guitarist Scott Fields is a Chicagoan by way of Madison, Wisconsin, who now resides in Cologne, Germany. He had a "countercultural" adolescence and started out playing blues in bars while still underage before falling under the spell of the Windy City's Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. ("A Poem for Joseph," which opens his album Fugu, is dedicated to Art Ensemble of Chicago saxophonist Joseph Jarman, with whom Fields has performed.) He put down his guitar when he was 21 and picked it up again 15 years later, earning a journalism degree in the meantime, although you wouldn't know it from his infuriatingly convoluted liner notes. Fugu is a reissue of a 1995 date first released on his own short-lived Geode label. The pieces were written to accompany dancers but their tricky, irregular meters proved unsuitable for that purpose. The music's subtly stunning on its own terms, though, performed by an unit of mainly classical players whose fiery interpretations of Fields' compositions belie their academic backgrounds. Cellist Matt Turner and vibist Robert Stright particularly shine.

A cursory glance at the band shot on Fight the Big Bull's All Is Gladness in the Kingdom caused me to wonder, "WTF is this, 'freak folk' shite?" I needn't have worried. Far from it, they're a robust and forward-thinking ensemble from Richmond, Virginia, of all places, helmed by guitarist-composer Matt White. They sound like the Gil Evans Orchestra with a screw loose, or one of those freewheeling Euro outfits like Willem Breuker's Kollektief. Like the '70s Evans outfit, they aren't above incorporating rawk influences (including the foulest sounding fuzztone I've heard in several years) to their tumult of squalling saxes and growling trombone. Elsewhere, their woodwinds sing as smoothly and sweetly as the ones from Ellington's Blanton-Webster band. The secret ingredient on All is Gladness... is trumpeter-composer Steven Bernstein (Sex Mob, Millennial Territory Orchestra), who traveled to Richmond from Da Apple for ten days of rehearsal, performance, workshops, and recording. On "Mothra," they sound like a futuristic sci-fi soundtrack gone haywire. And I just can't resist their wild 'n' wooly cover of "Jemima Surrender" from the Band's self-titled sophomore LP, an album they apparently dig real much. Which, come to think of it, _was_ pretty freaky (if only for its out-of-timeness) and folky (if you accept the premise that Ray Charles and Bobby Bland could be considered "folk music").

Speaking of large ensembles and Europeans, on Pillow Circles, commissioned for the 2009 North Sea Jazz Festival, Dutch saxophonist Jorrit Dijkstra (based in the U.S. since 2002) leads an all-star octet that includes saxman Tony Malaby, trombonist Jeb Bishop, bassist Jason Roebke, and drummer Frank Rosaly. Imagine if you will an ebulliently percolating jazz that's expansive enough to accommodate rustic touches like guitarist Paul Pallesen's banjo, moments of spacious experimentalism and even a soupcon of indie depresso-rock (dig the segment dedicated to Fred Frith). This is visceral music with intellect and a fair amount of humor. What's not to like? (And by the way, how's your Dutch?)

RED trio is neither (as far as I can tell) a group of doctrinaire Communists or a King Crimson tribute band. Rather, it's a collaboration between three adventurous improvisers -- pianist Rodrigo Pinheiro, bassist Hernani Faustino, and drummer Gabriel Ferrandini -- all of whom have worked with saxophonist Nobuyasu Furuya; the bassist and drummer appeared on Furuya's Bendowa album for Clean Feed last year. They claim the heritage of the Bill Evans-Paul Bley trio, not so much for the sounds and moods they create as for their instruments' roles as equals rather than foreground-and-background. This is daring, edge-of-seat stuff.

On Amnesia Brown, trumpeter Kirk Knuffke leads a trio that features two of his bandmates from Butch Morris' Nublu Orchestra, drummer Kenny Wollesen and multi-instrumentalist Doug Wieselman (Lounge Lizards, Flying Karamazov Brothers). Knuffke's a searchingly lyrical trumpeter, while Wieselman switches off between a mellifluous clarinet and a guitar that spans styles from surf to skronk. Wolleson's a thinking, listening percussionist. The music they make together is alternately contemplative, exploratory, and abrasive, but always incandescent. The 16 tracks that comprise Amnesia Brown are short but flow together seamlessly.

Sei Miguel plays pocket trumpet a la Don Cherry and, on Esfingico: Suite for a Jazz Combo, leads a group that includes alto trombone, bass guitar, electronics, and small percussion. While the group's episodic interplay is interesting, the connections they strike never seem to generate much heat or light. This is the kind of thing that's best experienced live, when you can observe the physical dynamic between the players.

The thickness of the Clean Feed catalog that accompanied these releases provided heartening evidence that there's a thriving audience for this kind of music -- in Europe, at least, if not here.


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