Music festivals are thick on the ground in Chicago these days, from summer behemoths like Taste of Chicago and Lollapalooza to niche events like the Neon Marshmallow Fest and the Umbrella Music Festival. Record labels have gotten in on the action too, celebrating milestone anniversaries by presiding over lineups drawn from their rosters past and present: Thrill Jockey, Touch and Go, Bloodshot.
This weekend a jazz label is hosting yet another festival, but oddly the presenter isn't Delmark, Southport, Atavistic, Blujazz, or any of the other Chicago imprints that support the city's thriving jazz scene—it's a label from Lisbon, Portugal. Over the past few years Clean Feed Records has emerged as one of the world's most prolific, adventurous, and consistent outlets for forward-looking jazz and improvised music—it's established such a gold-plated reputation that fans will buy anything it releases. Ken Vandermark, Charles Rumback, Jason Stein, and Lucky 7s are among the increasing number of Chicagoans with records on Clean Feed, and many others have served as sidemen for non-Chicagoans on Clean Feed sessions.
It might seem strange for all these locals to end up on the same overseas label, but given that Chicago's jazz scene and Clean Feed Records both have high international profiles—and that few other labels anywhere in the world put out so many top-shelf albums of this sort of music—it was actually almost inevitable. For the inaugural Clean Feed Festival in Chicago, eight bands with connections to the label—including locals Locksmith Isidore, Herculaneum, and the Keefe Jackson Trio—will play Friday and Saturday at the Cultural Center, Heaven Gallery, and the Hideout.
Pedro Costa started Clean Feed in 2001, and in the past few years his catalog has surged to nearly 200 titles. About half his roster is from the States, and predictably most of those artists are New Yorkers; the label has already presented five festivals in New York City, the most recent just last weekend. Costa first came to Chicago in September 2009, visiting with a couple musicians who'd traveled with him to the previous New York fest.
"I loved the relaxed mood of everybody compared to New York. It has somehow a much more European feel, and a much less competitive lifestyle," he says. "Chicago tends to be more and more an important center for this kind of music, with lots of connections to northern European countries like Sweden and Norway. It has one of the stronger scenes in the world today."
Costa started thinking early last year about setting up a festival here. For help he turned to jazz drummer and Pitchfork Music Festival organizer Mike Reed. "Pedro had the idea of doing this last September, when they were doing one in New York," says Reed. "I told him that he'd be getting a late start and it was kind of the worst time to do it because there was already so much stuff happening already." Reed suggested May, because it would be in advance of the busy summer season.
Reed doesn't even have any recordings on Clean Feed. "I just can't say no sometimes," he says. "Chicago has its players and its scene and its own identity, but it also remains a welcoming place to other people out there." Plus, as he sees it, helping out visitors can pay off for Chicago musicians when they travel to other countries.
Costa also owns a record shop in Lisbon called Trem Azul ("Blue Train"), which breaks even, and a distribution company that turns a modest profit. He supplements his income by producing about 40 jazz concerts annually in Portugal and across Europe, and that allows him to run Clean Feed as a labor of love—that is, in the red. The label expects to lose money on this festival, just like it does in New York: it's helping cover the artists' fees, so they'll get paid more than just door charges or donations would allow.
For Costa, though, the event is a different kind of investment, and he's happy with the returns he's seen so far in New York. "The results have been great," he says. "We're trying to create this family spirit about the label and musicians. It's also a great way to keep in touch with our people, musicians, and audiences."
Chicago Cultural Center, Preston Bradley Hall 78 E. Washington, 312-744-6630
6:30 PM Keefe Jackson Trio Despite mad skills as a soloist, local reedist Keefe Jackson has sometimes been tentative and disappointing as a bandleader—when calling the shots for the sextet Fast Citizens and the big band Project Project, he's failed to live up to the potential suggested by his powerful, elastic improvisations. But on the new Seeing You See (Clean Feed), where he leads a quartet with trombonist Jeb Bishop, bassist Jason Roebke, and drummer Nori Tanaka, he finally has the compositions and the structural focus to do justice to his playing. It's a huge leap for him. He's written ten sturdy postbop vehicles—swinging, bluesy, elegant, and wide open—whose extended solos are stoked by rhythmic variations and terse interjections from the rest of the group, and for lengthy passages Jackson and Bishop play off each other with preternatural grace. The band will be a trio tonight; Tanaka, a former Chicagoan, has moved back to his native Japan and cut this session during a brief return visit in April 2008.
7:30 PM Ingrid Laubrock, Kris Davis, and Tyshawn Sorey The lineup of this New York trio is mighty intriguing, but its first album, Paradoxical Frog (Clean Feed), is so new I wasn't able to hear it by press time. On recordings under his own name, versatile and open-eared drummer Tyshawn Sorey merges minimalist rock with Morton Feldman-style pointillistic abstraction, and he wields immense power whether he's swinging madly or tumbling free of tempo or pulse. Pianist Kris Davis has made a series of excellent albums for Fresh Sound New Talent—the latest is the 2008 quartet outing Rye Eclipse, with saxophonist Tony Malaby—where she likewise connects driving mainstream jazz with idiosyncratic and tempestuous improvisation. And terrific saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock, a German who's been based in New York for the past few years, has no trouble navigating between cosmopolitan postbop and the brainy, turbulent free jazz she kicked up on the excellent 2008 trio album Sleepthief (Intakt); this is her Chicago debut.
Hideout 1354 W. Wabansia, 773-227-4433 or 866-468-3401, $12
9:30 PM Herculaneum No Chicago outfit embodies the connections between the city's jazz and rock scenes like Herculaneum, led by drummer Dylan Ryan—whose other projects include Icy Demons, Bronze, and Michael Columbia. Saxophonist Dave McDonnell, Ryan's bandmate in Michael Columbia, also cofounded Bablicon; flutist and reedist Nate Lepine has played for Cursive, Manishevitz, and Head of Femur, among others. But they're not just farting around with jazz when they don't have rock shows to play, and they prove it with their latest album, the superb Herculaneum III (Clean Feed). Ryan's tunes have never been more elegant, and his resourceful arrangements make the band sound much larger than it is—which is saying something, since the current lineup is a sextet, rounded out by trombonist Nick Broste, trumpeter Patrick Newbery, and bassist Greg Danek. The four frontline players all make excellent use of their solo space—particularly the hot-blowing McDonnell, who's something of a wild card, and Broste, who's got a fat tone, a lyrical style, and a broad knowledge of the instrument's history in jazz. But just as rewarding (and more impressive) is the dense ensemble writing, which not only helps propel the soloists but gives each piece a multifaceted richness, with different sections in the same tune drawing on traditions as disparate as postbop and contemporary classical. Herculaneum also plays Thu 5/13 at Quenchers and Fri 5/14 at Reckless Records on Milwaukee.