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Wednesday, May 15, 2024

Warriors of the Wonderful Sound – Pedro Costa & Clean Feed

Pedro Costa. Photo by Petra Cvelbar

Interview by David Cristol

Clean Feed was born on March 16, 2001. 23 years later, the label has a back catalogue in excess of 700 titles. Based in Lisbon, it was founded by a group of passionate music fans and friends who didn’t know the first thing about making a record to begin with. Music lover and concerts organizer Pedro Costa emerged as the ringmaster. Graphic designers Rui Garrido and Travassos helped define the label’s visual identity, while the latter also curates the sister outlet Shhpuma, dedicated to more experimental aesthetics, with 50 titles published in less than four years. In 2021, Clean Feed had its 20th birthday and hasn’t slowed down since, releasing records at a faster rate than any other company, demonstrating continuity, loyalty, as well as welcoming new talent, in spite of an ever-floundering records business worldwide. Portuguese musicians such as Luis Lopes, Luis Vicente, Rodrigo Amado, the Lencastre brothers, Sei Miguel, Carlos Bica, Susana Santos Silva, Joao Barradas, Hugo Carvalhais, Pedro Melo Alves are well-represented, but the scope is really international with records from Kaja Draksler, Mette Rasmussen, Eve Risser, Sophie Agnel, Evan Parker, Ken Vandermark, Ches Smith, Frantz Loriot, Larry Ochs… For enthusiasts of non-formatted jazz, the landscape would be unimaginable without the label’s steady, singular and quality output.

David Cristol: Can you present the new edition of Causa – Efeito?

Pedro Costa: It’s the second year of the festival in Lisbon, mostly outside of the jazz canons, with unusual instrumentation, and carrying out the use of freedom in the XXIst century.

How did you put the program together?

We wanted to pay tribute to three of the most influential musicians and composers of modern jazz: Michael Formanek, Tim Berne and Eve Risser. Each one plays twice at the festival. Formanek has a great impact on the scene since he has moved to Lisbon. He’s a new pivot for the music these days. We can’t thank him and his wife Sandra enough for their choice.

The first edition of Causa – Efeito was essentially a showcase of Clean Feed projects. Is there a running theme to this year’s edition?

The running theme is freedom. Our revolution day happened 50 years ago. We should always celebrate this date, it’s our true national day. Also, we have the focus on the three artists I mentioned before, who I believe helped shape creative jazz.

What were you doing in 1974? Do you remember the revolution?

I remember my parents took me and my brother, 5 and 7 years old, to Lisbon in order to celebrate freedom. We drove around Marquês de Pombal [a place in the city center] with little Portuguese flags screaming “FREEDOM!” to each other. I wasn't much aware of what was coming that would be so different from what we had before, I was happy because my parents and everybody were happy. Freedom sounded good, still does.

How did the idea occur to do the festival in Lisbon, and how did NOVA university get into the action?

NOVA University turned 50 years of age last year and they wanted to have a jazz festival there that would be different from other festivals that happen in the country, with a focus on innovation and experimentation. I believe this idea came from Clara Rowland who’s the responsible for the Cultural program of the University. She’s an incredible person to work with and I’m more than grateful for the chance she gave me to program the festival.

Did you organize concerts before you did the Portalegre and Causa – Efeito festivals?

The Portalegre Jazz Festival has over 20 years of history already. I started curating the program in 2011. Besides Portalegre and Causa – Efeito, I curated the jazz program at Culturgest for 10 years with two series, “Isto é Jazz?” and “Jazz *351”. I curated the jazz and blues part of “Festa da Música” at Centro Cultural do Belem for some years and also did the program for “Jazz às Quintas” there. I was also curating “Jazz ao Centro” in Coimbra for the first 10 years (2003-2012). I still collaborate with Casa da Música and Seixal Jazz for some concerts. I co-curated the Jazz Festival Ljubljana with Bogdan Benigar between 2011 and 2017.

Can you describe the Portalegre Jazz Fest which you curated the latest edition of in April 2024?

Portalegre is a district capital three hours away from Lisbon or Porto. Less and less people live there but the place is just beautiful. People are great and curious about the music. It’s an ongoing relationship I have with them, especially with Joaquim Ribeiro who’s the artistic director of CAE Portalegre, the venue that hosts the festival. I love being there presenting some cutting-edge music along with less “out” projects. This year we had the opportunity to have Mario Laginha and Pedro Burmester for a piano duo which was definitely unique. Pedro Carneiro did a marimba solo recital, Mario Costa played the great Chromosome album with Benoit Delbecq, Bruno Chevillon and Gileno Santana subbing for Cuong Vu, and we had Liba Villavecchia Trio + Luís Vicente, with John Edwards replacing Alex Reviriego who couldn’t make it. The Sophie Agnel/John Edwards/Steve Noble trio amazed the crowd and it feels strange that they don’t get to perform in every festival of creative music. Garfo, a Portuguese quartet with Bernardo Tinoco, João Almeida, João Fragoso and João Sousa closed the festival in style, they’re an interesting cast of talented young players.

Is organizing festivals a complementary activity to managing a record label?

I started organizing concerts before I released any music. The first festival I did the program for was in 1988, but unfortunately in the end it didn’t happen. Next was in 2000 with my brother, something called “LX Meskla”, a mix of jazz and world music.

Is producing concerts different than producing records and which do you prefer?

I think it’s basically the same thing. These days it feels better to produce concerts because it’s a situation where I can pay musicians.

What was the initial impulse, concept and decisions leading to the creation of Clean Feed? Did it happen fast and spontaneously or was it a carefully studied venture?

To start a label was in my mind since I was a kid. By the influence of my older brother Carlos, I stepped deep into music at an early age. I started to buy records when I was 9 and always followed record labels and all the logistics related to records. I loved reading liner notes, learning where the music was recorded and so on. I loved music and I loved records. Still do. In 2000 my brother Carlos, me and two friends made a music trip to New York with the idea of starting a label. There we attended dozens of concerts and met a lot of musicians like Lou Grassi, Steve Swell, Kevin Norton, Wilber Morris, Steve Lehman, Angelica Sanchez, Todd Capp, Ehran Elisha, Dave Ballou, Tony Malaby… This was certainly the final impulse to create a label that acted globally and with a special care for graphics. I worked in record stores since the late eighties and knew how important the design for records should be.

Clean Feed display. Photo by Petra Cvelbar

Did you have a background in music? You were a volunteer journalist at some point, right?

I never learned to play an instrument. Portugal was a much different country in the 1970s. Anyhow I always had a song in my head – still do. Sometimes the calling for this song was so loud that I had to go home from the beach where I was with my friends to listen to it. I was about 12/13 then. I was a volunteer journalist for a long time as a way to be close to the music, to connect. I wrote for several newspapers and magazines and I was the editor for the first two Jazz magazines here, All Jazz and I also had two radio shows with Hernâni Faustino in the late 1990s. 

Are there criteria for an album to be released by Clean Feed, and how did these criteria evolve over the years?

I set up the label to record fresh music, to cover the so-called free scene. Clean Feed’s goal is to highlight jazz that can only be made today, whether it's improvised or written.

For years I thought you had access to unlimited financing and didn’t understand how you could do it otherwise. I later understood you were an entirely independent operation.

 (laughs) Some people tend to think like this. The truth is, all the money I make with concerts promoting, teaching, etc. reverts to the label. So, when the times were good and I was curating festivals and venues like Jazz Festival Ljubljana, Culturgest where I worked for 10 years, CCB where I produced the “Jazz ás Quintas” series and other things, all the money was used to keep the company [Trem Azul, founded at the same time as Clean Feed] and label going. That made it possible to support many artists and feed the scene. So, if anyone wants to support the label just hire me as a curator.

Is there a specific audience for Portuguese musicians on the label? Did they get noticed abroad thanks to the label’s work?

I hope so but I can’t really tell. Releasing on the label is not enough to get noticed abroad, artists must do their share of work to make it happen. They need to organize tours, promote their music and so on .

Where is the best audience for Clean Feed? The US, Europe, which country shows more interest?

Showing more interest doesn’t mean more sales. Take Norway for instance, there seems to be an interest for the label but sales of our records there are pretty insignificant, as in Norway people don’t buy so much new music. We sell quite well in the US and used to do in Japan as well but not so much there anymore. The music sales are so low these days that it makes it difficult to say where the interest is today. The sales in Portugal are totally irrelevant.  

You must have had hundreds of fabulous experiences, meeting and working with all those musicians you probably already admired. Can you recall a story, a moment that you will think about forever?

 I admire many musicians I got to work with and that’s the most incredible thing about the label. Tim Berne, Louis Sclavis, Anthony Braxton, Carlos Bica, Mark Dresser, Gerry Hemingway, Charles Gayle, Joe McPhee, Ken Vandermark, Ray Anderson, Dennis Gonzalez, Whit Dickey, Evan Parker, Joe Morris, John Lindberg, Fred Frith, Elliott Sharp, and so on were longtime heroes. Getting to work with them, releasing their music was just phenomenal. I also met other musicians through concert promoting or just by chance over the years. That is just beyond words. I can give you a list of people that I got to know fairly well at some point like Sam Rivers, Andrew Hill, Muhal Richard Abrams, Oliver Lake, Wadada Leo Smith, Joachim Kuhn, Peter Brötzmann, Henry Threadgill, James Blood Ulmer, Bill Stewart, Reggie Workman…

A story that springs to mind took place at the Jazz em Agosto festival in 2011. Ornette Coleman was about to play. Me, my brother Carlos, Hernani and Travassos were carrying a huge amount of CD boxes to sell after the gig. We had the CDs stored down in the building and took them to the loft where we would sell them. Every time we had to pass very close to Ornette’s dressing room. He was just outside the room and we saw him there but we were too shy to talk to him, and we were busy up and down the stairs. At some point he called us and said, “Come on guys, let’s have a photo,” just out of the blue.

Clean Feed + Ornette

Different aesthetics are present on the label – which can make it difficult for magazines to zero in on a particular album, especially if it doesn’t fit into a jazz category that some press editors need. Yet, ECM has a diversity too, and that never bothered critics. When hearing the records there is a unity to them, they bear the Clean Feed ethos, maybe could only come out on the label. Would you agree, and how would you define the element that you do that other labels are not doing? 

Well, the same applies for graphics. Ideally every Clean Feed record would be unique in sound and design but that’s hard to reach when you put out 50 records a year. Unlike ECM, Clean Feed was never about any aesthetics in particular, design and sound wise. After nearly 700 releases however, you can tell there is some kind of thread. That thread is mine and Travassos’ head and heart, I wish there was less of that and even more variety. Every record should be totally unique, that’s how I see it. Sometimes on ECM records, a label I respect immensely, you can’t tell the ones you have or don’t have based on the similar layout. Coming from a small scene for creative music back in 2001, we could see the world without getting blind with our own scene. While other labels cover only one or just a few scenes, we are used to see from a distance. The idea from the beginning was to see the world as a global scene with many different accents. One day someone will map out Clean Feed and see that there’s not another label in the whole history of labels that covered as many different countries and scenes. Connecting dots as Clean Feed has been doing is perhaps our strongest achievement.

In those two decades, do you feel the label has fulfilled its goal, helped with the exposure and careers of many artists, both from Portugal and abroad?

I hope so, I just wanted to do more and distribute more bread to the incredible musicians we have been working with. Hopefully, somehow Clean Feed helped bands to achieve some kind of international acclaim. Some did, some didn’t. 

What were the best Clean Feed years, in your opinion, musically, in terms of local and international recognition, and sales?

I believe 2005-2015 was our best period in terms of sales. In terms of the music, it’s very difficult to say, I think that in a few years the current days will be recognized and revelatory. Because of the lack of resources, we cannot work with more popular names such as Tony Malaby, Mark Dresser or Anthony Braxton anymore but it doesn’t mean the music is less important or less vital. 

Were there planned albums that either the artists or you didn't feel good enough for release and that were shelved?

Sure there were.

Portugal seems to have a great number of labels now, most working independent, often operated by musicians who are also present on Clean Feed, of which they seem an extension. Maybe they wouldn’t exist without the Clean Feed experience. Were there jazz labels with visibility before in Portugal? Something you could learn something from?

There was just one jazz label before Clean Feed in Portugal. It was called Groove and from them we mostly learned how not to do things.

Do you work with Travassos on the covers, express an opinion or give directions? Do musicians also participate in the concepts or choices of the covers? They’re a remarkable, even essential element of the Clean Feed & Shhpuma identity, a feast for the eyes.

 Our first designer was Rui Garrido who did the first 104 covers up until 2008. Then Travassos whom I met in the late 1990’s stepped in for the next 550 or so. Travassos joined in 2005 to work at the shop and only later started to work on the album covers.

I always worked together with Travassos, and the musicians through me. Travassos sends some ideas first and then we decide about the way to go. Later I usually send two or three proposals to the musicians and sometimes they also bring in some ideas. In the end we’re all pleased with the results. The opposite never happened so far.

Is there a fixed modus operandi? Do you get sent recordings, or initiate them? For example, do you suggest musicians to form a trio or record a special repertoire – like Zorn did sometimes with Tzadik?

I hardly ever suggested any musicians to form a band. More important than that is to give room for working bands to develop their ideas. Then either I take it or not. Clean Feed means feeding with a clean signal, in video words. So that’s what I do here. Sometimes I suggest a different order to the tunes on the record, sometimes express that one tune should be left out of the record, but I don’t mess with it too much. I’m not a musician or a God. In my perspective that is wrong. Sometimes curators like to play God and impose ad-hoc bands just to have names on it and bring an audience to the concerts because of that. I rather give the audience good solid music instead.

You didn't slow down on quantity. No other label (be it of avant-garde jazz like Intakt and Rogue Art, or bigger ones like Impulse! and Blue Note) is issuing that many releases every month. This might be difficult to understand for the casual observer. Wouldn’t slowing down and focusing on selected releases help better identify the label, better promote specific albums and keep the whole thing afloat?

 I hear you David, that’s a good point and you’re not the first one with that question/suggestion. In fact, that’s the smartest thing to do, I wish I could follow that, I wish I was smart enough and pragmatic enough to do so. The thing is, I’m obsessed with music, new music. When you relate to music like I do, in number and quality it’s hard to say no. I say no to hundreds of high-quality proposals every year, many more that the number of records released. To change that state of affairs I would have to stop listening to those demos.

Even the truest fan cannot afford the economics, or living space, of buying many CDs and LPs each month. You have to be stable, with a job and income, etc. Which sometimes makes it look like jazz is for the rich, also true of festival audiences. It’s a tricky equation when those who are into the music cannot afford to buy much product, or at least have to make choices between a wide array of bands and labels.

Summer pop festivals are packed with people who make choices and have jobs, or parents that have jobs. We music lovers cannot buy every record, choices must be made, of course. But that has always been there. If I put out twenty less albums a year would that make a difference globally? The thing these days is to select and not to find out, as in the old days. You have to select the information, as opposite to finding the information. Promotion and communication are more important than the object itself these days. Look at the “best of the year” lists and the way everybody is selecting the same records. How is that possible if there’s tons of great records every year? 

Let’s focus on the latest batch of releases. How did they come to be, what were your reactions listening to the music? Are other people involved in the decision? In what conditions do you listen to the music for release consideration?

 I listen to the music through the speakers mostly. I can’t stand headphones for long, I get really tired even if mine are open ones. For some of the records there’s a continuum like for instance Friends and Neighbours, Jonas Cambien, Cortex, TGB, Liba Villavecchia or Miha Gantar. But that’s not all, I like to surprise and take things out of the comfort zone, like with “Futuro Ancestrale” by Giuseppe Doronzo, a great and unexpected record, or Jim Baker/Steve Hunt/Jakob Heinemann’s “Horizon Scanners”.

I decide on my own what is coming out.

What about pianist Miha Gantar you just released two box sets by in the space of a year? Major labels don’t take such risks.

Miha has support to do so and I won’t be the one to tell him to slow down. I don’t like to slow down so much myself and what would be the point? Those box sets were made to be like that, a showcase of Miha’s vision, work and career. Would it be better to have a single CD instead of five? I don’t think there’s any filler in those box sets. The success of a record cannot be judged by the number of copies sold, especially these days; and records still need to be done. A record is a landmark, a very special point in musicians’ and composers’ careers. Records are more important than live music, they stand still. How many people alive today saw Charlie Parker playing? Yet there are a good number of his records that we can still listen to and be delighted. Live music is in the moment and it’s incredible but a record stays forever. 

You have this huge legacy of music. Music gets forgotten then rediscovered years or decades later. So, you have this huge catalogue, ripe for discovery by future listeners, like it happened with other labels since the beginning of recorded jazz – and most labels didn’t last twenty years. Is that an idea you like?

I don’t look back so much and once the job is done, once a record is released, it’s up to others to judge it or feel the curiosity to listen to it. My job is done, and the record is no longer mine or even the musicians’ to own. The music is there. I know that I don’t make things easy for critics and journalists, I don’t impose a narrative or do the best commercial work so the process you mention will probably take longer and will only be clear when Clean Feed no longer exists. That’s the way things work. I like the idea, but I’m not obsessed with it nor do I work for it. I just release music that I love and feel that’s necessary to come out in the world. 

In the past you organized Clean Feed festivals abroad. How about doing that again? Strasbourg’s Jazzdor now brings their program to Berlin and Dresden in Germany. They also have a label and another associated label in Hungary, around the same roster of artists. How do you see the articulation between live and recorded music?

That would be wonderful, but funds are needed and that’s not easy in a country like Portugal where the cultural budget is 0,273% of the total budget. To make Clean Feed festivals and not be able to pay the bands a fair fee is not something I would want to do. A label should work for the musicians and not the opposite.

Is jazz boring? [as one of the label’s mottos stated]

It depends on what you call jazz. As I see it, jazz is a beautiful human artform that is always evolving and can incorporate many different visions as long as it takes risks and has something to say to the contemporary world we live in. If it’s just about comfort and a somewhat romantic notion it definitely feels boring to me. 

What are your favorite 5 record covers on the label?

  • Chris Lightcap's Bigmouth “Deluxe”
  • Angles 9 “Injuries”
  • Jonas Cambien Trio “We must mustn't we”
  • Eve Risser “Après un Rêve”
  • Tim Berne “Insomnia”

Your favorite 5 albums on Clean Feed?

The next 5 that are coming out.

Production time at the Clean Feed offices. Photo by Petra Cvelbar.

Which labels were you most inspired by?

Nonesuch Records, Hat Hut, ECM , Intakt, CIMP, FMP.

Which album is Clean Feed's best seller?

Bernardo Sassetti Trio “Nocturno”.

Which album do you feel should have been noticed more?

Fight the Big Bull “All is Gladness in the Kingdom”.

Which album was the most joyous to produce, release and promote?

Bernardo Sassetti Trio "Nocturno". It was recorded at Maria João Pires’ place, Quinta de Belgais, where we stayed for a week recording.

Which album was the most difficult to produce?

Hearth “Melt” and some of the ones that didn't have a leader.

What is the best part of producing albums?

Holding the finished product!

The 2nd edition of Causa – Efeito festival takes place May 23-25, 2024, Campus de Campolide, Lisbon.


Moe said...

Excellent interview Thanks

Maurice Hogue said...

Clean Feed has been consistently the most played label on my show, One Man's Jazz, for the last ten years or more. I thought I'd died and gone to heaven when I discovered Clean Feed. Pedro and his mates deserve so much credit for their belief in what they've continued to do. Tnaks Clean Feed! Excellent interview too.

Maurice Hogue

Anonymous said...

Excellent interview! Thoughtful and informed questions. Thank you.

Julian Maynard-Smith said...

Interesting and informative interview. It's not a label I was familiar with, but on the strength of this interview it's one I shall be investigating

FLAKE said...

Love, love, love this interview. <3 Really great questions from David and cool, insightful answers from Pedro. What a great insight into this mammoth label, and what a legacy. I really hope they stick around for just a bit longer, as I have only just discovered jazz as a genre, and articles like this entice me even more, making me curious about the entire catalogue.