Anthony Braxton once said (and I paraphrase him here liberally) that one of his grandest ideas in music was to arrange improvising orchestras at various points in the solar system and connect them via satellite to play as one universal creative music orchestra. It is a grandiose scheme indeed, but one that cuts to the heart of improvised music, and that is an aesthetic communication between people irrespective of place. At this year's Vision Festival, converging in one space were improvisers from Germany, Belgium and various parts of the Americas (including some expats). Some were elder statesmen and some were young upstarts, but all were engaged in the process of creating music. Improvisation is a global action, and unfortunately provincialism does still rear its ugly head (a European vs. American debate raged not too long ago on one jazz web speakeasy). But in Lisbon, Portugal, the fact of a global improvised music community appears to be strongly on the minds of those involved with the music, and manifest in Clean Feed Records and its five employees.
Formed in 2001, Clean Feed has boasted an impressive discography in a few short years: Gerry Hemingway, the Whit Dickey/Rob Brown juggernaut, Steve Swell, Ahmed Abdullah, Paul Dunmall, the Lisbon Improvisation Players and the young alto firebrand Steve Lehman are just a few of the nearly 25 releases that Clean Feed has assembled so far. Improvisers from Portugal, England, the U.S. and elsewhere make their home on the label; elder statesmen such as Malcolm Griffiths, Abdullah and Pheeroan akLaff find themselves alongside upstarts like Lehman. The label was started by jazz connoisseur and former record store keeper Pedro Costa with help from his brothers (elder brother Carlos was in fact the impetus for Pedro's interest in jazz). The primary reason for starting Clean Feed was, for Costa, 'to be strongly connected with the music that I love and to the beautiful musicians around,' and this labor of love separates Clean Feed from the more profit-driven labels in the jazz record industry: 'I think that somehow we had different ideas to add to the record industry. I don't feel we are a part of the music industry, but a vehicle to release pure and unadulterated music that we love.'
Central to their philosophy is the presentation of creative music as world music; their first release, The Implicate Order at Seixal , featuring trombonist Steve Swell, bassist Ken Filiano and drummer Lou Grassi, joined the American bass-drum-bone trio with Portuguese saxophonists Rodrigo Amado and Paulo Curado. It may seem like a small step, but the label has put forth a twofold discographical vision: that which puts on the world map Portuguese improvisers like pianist Bernardo Sassetti, violinist Carlos Zingaro, tubaist Sergio Carolino and bassist Carlos Barretto up next to a strong contingent of American improvisers (not to mention a few from England). Granted, most of the titles seen on shelves here in the U.S. are those of the North American contingent, but the fact that Portugal's underground improvisers are being recorded as fervently (and sometimes on the same record dates) as the often more visible Americans is reason enough to sit up and listen. Hopefully some of these musicians will become as well-known for their craft as their counterparts in other European countries - just as labels like FMP and Saba put on the map German improvisers like Alexander von Schlippenbach and Peter Br'tzmann, so too Clean Feed is hell bent on uplifting the Portuguese jazz scene.
Like many young, small jazz labels, the biggest problem that Clean Feed has faced is that of distribution - though somewhat regularly available in the States (at least in bigger markets), as Costa says 'we feel that countries like France, Germany, England and Italy could be great markets for our records and for some reason that is not happening.' But such difficulties are par for the course with any small label, and the fact that it is a labor of love is matched by the record-industry truth that 'the easiest part is to release the music and talk to the musicians, something that we really love. In fact we live for that.' The discs themselves are handsomely packaged (no floppy cardboard, thankfully) with clear geometric graphics and artful photography, bold but simple statements in graphic design. Often, no liner notes are present, speaking to the philosophy that the music should speak for itself; on other discs they have been penned by committed critics (including Harvey Pekar).