About five years ago, I received the first of what would become a steady stream of small packages of compact discs sent from Lisbon, Portugal. The CDs were sleeved in slightly undersize cardboard foldout cases, often with colorful abstractions or moody black-and-white photographs as cover art. The music was predominantly what most would consider progressive, avant-garde, or postmodern jazz. Some of the players were unfamiliar, including stars of the Portuguese jazz scene such as trumpeter Sei Miguel, guitarist Mário Delgado, and pianist Bernardo Sassetti. Some—saxophonists Tony Malaby and Ellery Eskelin, drummer Tom Rainey, guitarist Joe Morris, bassist Lisa Mezzacappa—were well established in my record collection. Still others were musicians who had recently appeared on my radar and whom I was eager to study further—pianist Kris Davis, guitarist Mary Halvorson, and saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock, for instance.
The label was called Clean Feed, and unbeknownst to me it had been releasing similarly adventurous, eclectic, and international jazz since 2001. As an amateur picker fixated on the cutting edge of guitar music, I was especially taken with a 16-track anthology titled I Never Meta Guitar, featuring Halvorson, Jeff Parker, Henry Kaiser, Nels Cline, Raoul Bjorkenheim, Janet Feder, and others. (I Never Meta Guitar Too followed in 2012). That—and a quartet session with British improvising legends saxophonist Evan Parker, bassist Barry Guy, and drummer/percussionist Paul Lytton plus trumpeter Peter Evans (Scenes in the House of Music), as well as the trio of pianist Davis, saxophonist Laubrock, and drummer Tyshawn Sorey (Paradoxical Frog)—convinced me that this was a label that takes creative music very seriously and one that jazz fans everywhere should embrace and investigate.
As of December 2014, Clean Feed had released some 350 CDs (and a half-dozen vinyl LPs). Many of the American and European musicians who appear on the label have also been associated with such vital and (at least in the U.S.) more readily recognizable brands as ECM, Pi Recordings, Aum Fidelity, and Cuneiform. And for every Pharoah Sanders, Wadada Leo Smith, Elliott Sharp, or Peter Brötzmann on Clean Feed there are a dozen lower-profile virtuosos waiting to be discovered, including Luís Lopes, Pascal Niggenkemper, or Jonas Kullhammar. Such output would be impressive from an enterprise four or five times the size of Clean Feed, which is operated by just four people.
The man curating this wide-ranging collection is Pedro Costa. “When I started the label, I felt I needed to present good music from all over the world,” he said in an email exchange from Lisbon. “I always thought that what was needed wasn’t another local label covering its scene but rather an open one, and I considered myself someone that could do the job, having worked in record shops all my life. In the beginning, though, I never thought that the label would be what it is now. I didn’t have a clue. I never imagined that I would release music by such long-time heroes as Tim Berne, Charles Gayle, Mario Pavone, Anthony Braxton, Louis Sclavis, Ken Vandermark, Joe Morris, Tony Malaby, and Carlos Bica.”
Declaring himself an “iconoclast,” an understatement when you consider the quirky breadth of the Clean Feed catalog, Costa cites a handful of record labels as role models: Nonesuch, Island, ECM, Arista, Hat Art, and CIMP. But while he may be a connoisseur of “underrated free music,” he doesn’t base his decisions about what to release solely on his personal taste. Whether the musician or band has many recordings is a factor; also, Costa asks himself if the music delivers a certain level of authenticity. “We are not just looking for the new,” he explained. “Authentic music doesn’t get old, and it is totally apart from any genre. It is the musician’s genre; each authentic musician has a genre. My idea of perfection would be the existence of as many genres as there are musicians.”
One way that Costa guarantees a mingling of diverse “genres” is by recognizing that in jazz the avant-garde belongs to no particular generation. On Clean Feed, the relative upstarts—bassist Chris Lightcap, drummer Harris Eisenstadt, trumpeters Darren Johnston and Kick Knuffke—stand on equal footing with the ancien régime of trombonist Roswell Rudd, reed master Vinny Golia, and multi-instrumentalist Joe McPhee. “The goal of the label,” Costa wrote, “is to mix more recognized musicians, recording what they really feel like in an unadulterated way, with more obscure or younger musicians who deserve more documentation.”
Kris Davis once qualified as obscure, even to Costa, but in recent years the Calgary, Canada-bred pianist has risen toward the top of annual critics’ polls and best-of lists. Her recordings for Clean Feed—including Aeriol Piano, Waiting for You to Grow, Capricorn Climber, and the collaborative Paradoxical Frog (my top jazz album of 2010) and Fiction Avalanche by the RIDD Quartet (with saxophonist Jon Irabagon, bassist Reuben Radding, and drummer Jeff Davis)—have accelerated that ascent. For Costa, meeting Davis was a revelation, in more ways than one. Costa had begun traveling to New York City and voraciously attending concerts in 1994. Through drummer Todd Capp, and eventually others, he started networking in the jazz scene and befriending the likes of Ken Filiano, Wilbur Morris, Steve Lehman, Roy Campbell, and Anthony Braxton. By 2006, he was so well connected stateside that he began producing an annual Clean Feed Festival in New York. During the second edition of the festival in 2007, Davis and Costa arranged to meet at the Cornelia Street Café. “I had really dug Davis’ quartet records on Fresh Sound,” Costa recalled, “and we already had a deal for RIDD Quartet. But I had actually thought she was a man. Big surprise when we met, then. Heh heh heh!”
Between the poles of iconic veterans and rising stars, the Clean Feed catalog is stocked with mid-career artists who are well established in the jazz world, though not squarely in the mainstream nor at the level of a Wynton Marsalis. They include bassist Mark Dresser, reed player Steve Adams of ROVA Saxophone Quartet, and saxophonists Michael Blake, Marty Ehrlich, and Tony Malaby. The 51-year-old Malaby has had six albums issued on Clean Feed since Costa heard him play with trumpeter Dave Ballou at the Old Office in the Knitting Factory in New York in 2000. “I came in after they’d already started playing,” Costa remembered, “and I was astonished by the saxophonist’s playing but I didn’t know who it was. At the end of the show, Dave introduced the band and I finally understood why I was so fascinated. I’d heard a few recordings with Malaby, and his playing had the same feeling of power, spirituality, and skill—all at once.
“On that same trip to New York, and in the same room, the Old Office, I met Steve Lehman as well. He was playing in percussionist Ehran Elisha’s band with James Fei and Taylor Ho Bynum. It amazed me: the music, and especially him. In the audience it was just me and my Portuguese friends, plus Steve’s mother. I recognized a star there, someone that was not from this planet.”
That otherworldly quality of the music is Costa’s primary obsession, much more than audiophile sound or profitability. “All Clean Feed releases are good, soundwise,” he said, “but I’m not a slave to sound. Music is the most important thing.” As is getting it heard. To that end, Clean Feed has distributors in Germany, France, Italy, Belgium, Norway, Sweden, Poland, Spain, and Japan; sells from its website, cleanfeed-records.com, and through other online retailers and record shops around the world; and services about 150 jazz journalists with review copies directly from Lisbon (and even more through its various distributors).
Nobody is getting rich from his labors. “Money is really tight,” Costa wrote. “Neither the workers here nor the artists are making a lot of money. We all have to do other things in order to survive.” As a reviewer, I find it daunting, if not impossible, to keep up with everything Clean Feed releases. But the nature and quality of the music keep me waiting eagerly for the next bundle of CDs. And Costa has no plans to curtail the stream. “We’re actually hoping to grow the label a bit in 2015,” he said. “There’s so much incredible music around the world, I wish we could release more than we do. More labels are needed.”
When asked for a photograph to accompany this article, Costa sent me the lead image on this page. It’s pretty casual, but with great spirit—and “great spirit” would begin to define this small label with an intriguing, eclectic, and expansive catalog.
Photograph courtesy of Petra Cvelbar.