Music

Clean Feed Records and Mary Halvorson: Promises of Good Things to Come in Jazz

Photo of Mary Halvorson courtesy of Improvised Communications.com

The promise of great jazz for the next year, or ten, was struck in 2010 by guitarist Mary Halvorson and Clean Feed Records.

If you’re looking ahead in 2011 at what the year—or the coming decade—holds in jazz, then 2010 gave us two stories that portend thrilling music ahead.

First, there is a relatively new record label that seems dead-set on unleashing the full-on floodgates of adventurous improvised music at every turn. Clean Feed, based in Lisbon and founded in 2001, has become nothing less than a force of nature, releasing exciting music in big, fat batches. Snaring big name artists, yup, and also promoting the little guy, Clean Feed is supernatural. Clean Feed is my hero.

Among the artists showing up on Clean Feed in 2010 (and elsewhere too, importantly) was guitarist Mary Halvorson. Halvorson is the furthest thing from another Berklee-trained pentatonic wonder. She’s all edge and all charm at the same time, someone whose pedigree includes Wesleyan University and Anthony Braxton bands, but also a gentle duo or two. And in 2010 she released what may have been the most surprising—and promising—disc of the year.

Two trends to watch, right here.

Trend One: Clean Feed Can’t Be Ignored

When your regular, everyday jazz critic comes home from a day of doing whatever he does to make some scratch for rent and food and the occasional new pair of Pumas, he finds a package leaning against his door. If it’s a skinny package, then it might be a new recording from Blue Note or Sunnyside—a good day, for sure. But if it’s a big thick package jammed with seven or eight new releases at once, baby, it’s from Clean Feed.

He tears the manila envelope open and finds beautiful art adorning thin cardboard CD packages, and beyond that nothing is predictable. He might not know Matt Bauder (an adventurous reed player), but he sure does know James Carney and Stephan Crump. Unfamiliar with James Robinson? But he’s playing with the pianist Anthony Davis, one of his favorites. The Convergence Quartet is new to him, but—Holy CRAP!—look at the band Tony Malaby has put together on Tamarindo Live.

He's tired, so he's excused if he doesn't get around to putting on any of these many discs right away. But he's just got to hear them. What is the deal with Clean Feed records anyway?

Clean Feed’s website is modest and slightly out-of-date. Who has time to update the “About Us” page when you are putting out almost 50 recordings in 2010 by bands from all over the world, recordings that span styles and sounds with flying abandon? Here’s some of what the label says about itself:

“Clean Feed was founded in 2001 to release Portuguese and foreign musicians in separate and cooperative projects. The label was also created facing the whole world as its operating ground, taking advantage of the Internet revolution and the increasing global music market. Very quickly, Clean Feed found itself at the vortex of the international creative jazz scene, releasing projects that reached far beyond what we could initially imagine... Clean Feed aims at recording innovative contemporary jazz projects that can make a difference, building a catalogue that will be internationally recognized by its quality and coherence.”

The judgment is George W. Bush-isms simple: Mission Accomplished.

It would be impossible fully to do justice to the work of Clean Feed in 2010 in a single column, but here is a limited snapshot of some (and way too few) of my favorites.

Photo of Stephan Crump by © JR Delia found on Stephan Crump.com

Clean Feed Gives Musicians Room

Take the Crump/Carney duet album, Echo Run Pry. Like some classic jazz LP from the '70s, this recording consists of just two tracks, 20-plus minute free improvisations that unspool gradually and beautifully. (The model for Crump and Carney may have been the 1976 recordings on Improvising Artists by Sam Rivers and Dave Holland.) These duets are free and sometimes dissonant, but they are clear and melodic too—patient and surprising and uncommonly gorgeous. Carney is reaching into his instrument to pluck or mute strings, turning the piano into something exciting but not snarling, and Crump is rich in tone and every bit the piano’s equal. Grooving, swinging, free, mind-blowing.

Clean Feed Let’s Stars Play Around

For a small label, Clean Feed sure is hauling in some big jazz names. Maybe not the Diana Kralls or Wynton Marsalises, but few jazz players have risen faster in the last few years than alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa. But here he is recording for Clean Feed along with another big name—Steve Lehman. The two alto players share a sound and sensibility, of course: a jagged but precise kind of linear blowing that transcends “inside” and “outside” clichés and thrives on new kinds or arrangements, complex patterning, and acid-toned energy.

So Dual Identity, which pairs the two in a quintet with Liberty Ellman’s guitar, Matt Brewer on bass, and Damion Reid on drums, is both a jazz event and a bit of an indulgence. The two leaders snake around each other on nervous fast tunes and obtuse ballads, sounding quite similar in some ways, working out like kindred spirits who need to push each other hard. Ellman gets to play plenty of beautiful textures, but he also moves in tandem with Brewer to create grooves. This wasn’t my favorite disc of the year, but it has a thrilling all-star quality to it, like watching Lebron James and Dwayne Wade finally play on the same team. Like the Miami Heat, it mostly works.

Clean Feeds Give Us New Names, Old Names

Some musicians hide from the public. They disappear and teach. Or they play locally and never quite get on your radar. Or they play outside the center of one style somehow. For me, one of the “lost” jazz masters of the '70s and '80s is pianist Anthony Davis. Davis made a series of recordings for India Navigation featuring flutist James Newton, trombonist George Lewis, vibist Jay Hoggard, and others that defied category in delicious ways.

Then, quite deliberately, Davis—trained classically at Yale—started composing music that was not jazz in any meaningful way, including pieces for his ensemble Epistome and eventually opera as well (X about the life of Malcolm X). Once in a blue moon he would appear playing jazz, each time seeming like a long lost, but favorite, uncle. Cerulean Landscape pairs Davis with saxophonist and flutist James Robinson, now a professor at Amherst (and a former student of Davis’s at UC San Diego). It's a lush and expansive set of seven tunes by both men, reflecting influences from Ellington to Cecil Taylor to classical and folk music. It gives you the sense that original, thrilling music is awaiting you beyond the clubs and concert halls. Anthony Davis is still here, pulsing with life, and musicians you’d never heard of are pulsing right along with him.

Clean Feed Encourages Surprising Collaboration

In real life, there are working bands, sure, real bands that stay together for years and develop on records over time, scrutinized by fans. But in jazz there are even more bands that come together for one night or one tour, one project, create some magic then split. Those special occasions too often miss the ears of even the ardent fan. But Clean Feed is giving many of these assemblages a chance for immortality. How about this band: Tony Malaby on tenor, Wadada Leo Smith on trumpet, New York bassist extraordinaire William Parker, and Bandwagon drummer Nasheet Waits. Tamarindo Live catches them live at the Jazz Gallery from June 2010, playing free and fantastic. Malaby sounds unleashed on soprano sax, buzzing and twirling, Smith is clarion at times and always a rhythmic marvel, and the rhythm section feels like a trampoline: pliant and yet firm. You missed this gig because you weren’t in town that day? Clean Feed brings it to your door.

Clean Feed Crosses Oceans, Easily

Based in Lisbon, Clean Feed isn’t hung up on nationality, race, location, culture. In the Clean Feed playground of improvised music, the monkey bars are open to all. A good example is Pool School from the Tom Rainey Trio. Rainey is a delicious drummer who I associate with the aggressive and wide-open playing of Tim Berne, but who has the skill and sensibility to play just about anything, funk to free and back again. This trio brings in US guitarist Mary Halvorson and saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock, born in Germany but based in London. And while this is certainly “free jazz”—in that Laubrock plays with little regard for standard harmony or tonality, Halvorson plays textures as much as she does chords, and Rainey is constantly fracturing any steady sense of swing or straight time—the tunes are brief (mostly four-five minutes) and concise, with each player committing to a framework and not just going on-and-on-forever-already. While they sound freely improvised, the clarity of each track suggests a magical guiding hand. If only all jazz, free or otherwise, played by musicians from around the globe had this focus.

In 2011, Clean Feed already has five releases, including a live date from Mostly Other People Do the Killing (with a hilarious cover parodying The Koln Concert). Are you drooling a little bit? You should be.

Trend Two: Mary Halvorson Is Coming For You

The Tom Rainey Trio disc on Clean Feed features the guitarist Mary Halvorson, and in 2010 she is the other emerging story. Halvorson has been playing in New York since 2002, after studies at Wesleyan and The New School. But the chance that you would mistake her for, say, Pat Metheny or John Scofield is zero percent. Halvorson’s style is fragmented and cuts utterly loose from conventional jazz patterns. And while she plays a huge hollow-body Guild guitar with a fairly clean sound, she is quick to bend her notes, frazzle her lines, leap and crackle, pluck and pull and strike her strings against convention.

But here’s the thing: for all the veering away from conventional melodic form, you can’t stop listening. Halvorson captivates. And I’m not sure you’ll be able to figure out why. For all her lack convention—indeed, her self-described “weird”ness—she is extraordinarily musical.

Though Halvorson leads several bands and plays regularly in (and records regularly with) a dozen others, the news in 2010 was her first recording with The Mary Halvorson Quintet, Saturn Sings. This disc is special in Halvorson’s catalog because it gives fuller expression to her fascinating compositions.

“Miles High Like (No. 16)” is underpinned by typical Halvorson guitar work: stabbing patterns, oddly timed jabs and scratches, droning repetitions. But riding atop this is a coolly harmonized set of keening melodies played by Jonathan Finlayson on trumpet and Jon Irabagon on alto sax. As Finlayson solos, Halvorson grows more and more agitated beneath him, bending her chords, scratching at the strings, then finally playing what amount to mad rock chords. This music is weird, sure, but with Finlayson it’s also deeply melodic and rollicking fun.

“Sea Seizure (No. 19)” is just for the trio, and it actually just rocks. Halvorson starts by a playing a single distorted note in a hammer of repetitions while drummer Ches Smith provides solid backbeat, then they both shift into a syncopated groove beneath an oddball arpeggio. When Halvorson improvises, then, there is no chord pattern to follow but just a rhythmic blueprint that could go almost anywhere. And as with all of Halvorson’s music, things do go anywhere and everywhere. Could she play a straight bebop line if she wanted to? That certainly is not in the DNA of her style, but who really cares? She plays with plenty of precision when she wants to, and this band proves that repeatedly as bassist John Hebert or the horns lock in with her notes.

Saturn Sings proves that the idiosyncratic shapes of Halvorson’s melodies are not merely the sounds of someone freaking out on the guitar. Her odd melodic forms can sound vaguely random (if thrilling) on the trio tunes, but the cascades and marches, Blakeyisms and singsong ballads that she composes for the horns become wonderfully balanced counterpoints to her guitar. In fact, as “avant-garde” as Halvorson’s basic aesthetic may be, a tune like “Crack in Sky (No. 11)” is flat-out lovely. Irabagon’s alto solo lilts and dances, and the guitar accompaniment comes close to sensitive comping while still retaining certain trademarked bends and flutters. Amen, Mary!

The reason Mary Halvorson is giving jazz a nice little thrill about now goes beyond the quality of the music. Partly it’s that she is different. Not insignificantly, she is a woman in an art form that—despite how little we write and talk about it—is weighted madly toward men. She’s not a singer or a pianist but a guitarist with a caustic sound. That is very different. And her sound does not come from and then deviate from jazz’s mainstream of bop and post-bop orthodoxy. Halvorson’s art begins with an assumption of huge freedom, so it doesn’t become “free” by violating the norms she learned in music school. This second generation liberty, in not being a reaction against anything, feels utterly sincere and balanced. It’s the closest thing in jazz guitar playing to the piano styles of Matthew Shipp, Vijay Iyer, and Jason Moran that have been the other main story of the last five years in jazz.

Mary Halvorson smiles. Her music sounds like a fresh, brisk rain shower. She works noise and charm into the same track with ease. She plays with anyone and everyone who needs a new sound on guitar. And—of course—you can find her on Clean Feed releases. The promise of 2011 in jazz is bright.

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