Monday, April 16, 2012

A few good jazz records on Clean Feed

Am I the only one who thinks it's kind of odd that Pedro Costa, honcho of Lisbon-based Clean Feed Records, found it necessary to pen a liner note concerning "authenticity" on one of his label's new releases (specifically, Kulhammer/Aalberg/Zetterberg's Basement Sessions, Vol. 1)? Universally hailed by the jazz community, this plucky little label-that-could maintains a robust release schedule that's surely indicative of demand for its product.

Yet, Costa writes, "Mainstreamers can be put off if they think that Clean Feed is only an avant-garde record label. Modernist explorers might feel as though Clean Feed is too aligned with traditional jazz idioms. For me the label is a vehicle for contemporary, authentic, improvised music: so called jazz, played by 'authentic' people." So much for being all things to all people. Sounds like a worthy statement of purpose to me.

On the disc in question, a trio of Swedes (Jonas Kulhammer - tenor/bari, Torbjorn Zetterberg - bass, Espen Aalberg - drums) explore territory previously traversed by the classic Coltrane quartet on albums like Crescent. All three men are skillful and expressive improvisers, and they play the music -- alternately contemplative and bracing -- as though they own it, which in fact they do (the notes are universal, feeling is universal).

A different kettle of fish entahrly is Aggregat, a trio date led by Elliott Sharp, a Lower Manhattan brainiac who's done work in a variety of idioms since the late '70s, and whose compositional/improvisational inspirations include "fractal geometry, chaos theory, and genetic metaphors." (He did postgraduate work with both composer Morton Feldman and ethnomusicologist/Urban Blues author Charles Keil.)

Here, E# (do his friends call him "F?") blows a brawny tenor -- like Archie Shepp after his debt to Ben Webster became apparent -- a searching soprano, and a skronky, Sharrockian guitar that's most effective to these feedback-scorched ears when it's used as a percussion instrument. He's backed to the hilt by NYC stalwarts Brad Jones (bass) and Ches Smith (drums). Dig a taste of what Sharp's about from the documentary Elliott Sharp: Doing the Don't.

Brooklyn has taken a lot of ribbing of late for being the epicenter of bearded, Buddy Holly-bespectacled, porkpie-hat-and-skinny-jeans wearing indie rock hipsterdom, but time was when the borough where both Jackie Robinson and Sonny Rollins played (at Ebbets Field and on the Williamsburg Bridge, respectively) was actually a hotbed of jazz. That's the heritage referred to in Brooklyn DNA, a stunning duet album by multi-instrumentalist Joe McPhee and bassist Ingebrigt Haker Flaten.

The titles to the tunes contained therein are more crammed with Brooklyn referents than any artifact since Wayne Wang's film Blue In the Face, including the aforementioned bridge, the address where the late saxophonist Dewey Redman resided (he once told me that his mostly West Indian neighbors, hearing him practice, asked if he knew any Kenny G), and Don Cherry's album Where Is Brooklyn? (to which Joe and Ingebrigt respond, "Here and Now").

My deep dive into '70s jazz a couple of months back reminded me of how sublime were the duets recorded by Ornette Coleman with Charlie Haden and Sam Rivers with Dave Holland back in those days, and Brooklyn DNA is right up there with those stellar works. What makes it so is the timbral variety provided by McPhee's array of axes (pocket trumpet, soprano and alto), Haker Flaten's sympatico and engaging accompaniment, and the myriad moods evoked by the confluence of their spirit-songs.

Estilacos by the prolific soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy is both the least and most remarkable of the current Clean Feed crop. Lacy's an interesting figure: a former Dixielander, he was an early familiar of Cecil Taylor's and an acolyte of Monk's, specializing in soprano saxophone before Coltrane popularized the instrument with "My Favorite Things."

Recorded at a 1972 Lisbon concert, Estilacos was the first jazz record released in Portugal at a time when jazz was frowned on by the government (which was overthrown in 1974). The group includes Lacy's wife and longtime collaborator Irene Aebi on cello, transistor radio, and harmonica, and Steve Potts on tenor sax. The music has the tempestuous sound of late-'60s "freedom music," which must have sounded to European listeners like the simmering cauldron of American social unrest coming to a boil. In a time when Europe is experiencing similar turbulence, it's a worthy reminder of why a label boss might feel compelled to reaffirm his commitment to "authenticity."


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