Jeff Kaiser – 17 Themes For Ockodektet

17 Themes For Ockodektet
Jeff Kaiser
(PfMentum – 2002)
by John Barrett

The avant-garde big band is a fascinating concept … and an elusive one. How do you get a united sound in a genre requiring individuality? Can a roomful of players blow freely, without it dissolving in chaos? On his 40th birthday, trumpeter Jeff Kaiser led 17 instruments through two vivid suites, where colors are many and emotions change fast.

Opening to thick applause, “Dirge” pairs a drunk bass clarinet with a lazy tuba, walking in sad slithers. This sounds traditional and modern at once – shades of Albert Ayler. Throaty at first, the reed becomes bolder, fiercer; a hum starts in the brass section, and percussion creeps in like radio static. With encouragement from the crowd, the whole band enters … like a New Orleans parade gone mad. Suddenly they’re all twittering, and we start the second movement, “Clad Like Birds”.

A tenor hits long, wavering notes; these are answered by Kaiser, blowing in a soft transparent tone. This is more of a dirge than the first number, and the horns scream a finale, stark and powerful. From here we move to gentler things: “Amplifying Their Moods” is a study for organ (Wayne Peet), steel drums (Brad Dutz), and an earthy, Rahsaan-like flute. The musicians react in astonishing fashion: a phrase by Jeff is continued on oboe, concluded by soprano sax … or it could be the same instrument played two different ways! At the end are crackling woodwinds, a loud series of oom-pahs (!) and Peet’s organ, which starts in a churchyard and ends in a haunted house. This music can change instantaneously – a good match for the genre and those who play in it.

You won’t find this instrumentation any place else: the group includes two basses, two guitars, three percussionists, one trombone (on a valve model, yet) and some very talented reeds. The most famous among them are Peet and West Coast icon Vinny Golia (Kaiser plays in the Golia Large Ensemble, another avant-garde big band.) “Even with Diagrams” finds the brass on parade, a slow walk leading into shrill clusters. Unrelated to jazz, this piece feels like the classical music written in the ‘Sixties. The solemn texture is upset by a cantankerous baritone sax (probably Golia); after this, all goes wild. Jeff’s fluttering solo is nice, along with the drums behind him.

“One Absolute Material” is a feature for the drummers; Peet helps out with some flying-saucer noises. There is a loud whisper on “Figure of This In-Between” – muted horns, covered by a windy synthesizer. From there you get frantic saxwork, a chorus of chirping reeds, and, on “Figure with Wings”, a pair of giddy flutes, chasing each other in glee. An ominous tuba (Mark Weaver) glowers in the background, drums surge and then fade – the flutes stay the same, but their mood is altered by the things around them. Flamboyant horns close the suite with a blare that rivals “Ascension”. It’s uneven, and unfocused at times, but also shows talent, strength, and ingenuity – as I said, a fascinating concept.

The second suite, more formal in structure, reminds me of the composer Toru Takemitsu in its use of open space. Following a pompous fanfare, “Coincidentia Oppositorium” is a workout for Ernesto Diaz-Infante, twanging the strings in a rusty jangle. The fanfare sounds again, and we’re now in a jungle of flutes and bells. This gives way to brass, wailing a lament on “Where His Third Eye Could Be”. The basses take their only solo (one bowed, one plucked) over steel drums and electronic squiggles. The highlight here is the baritone, slithering like a gator through the swamp. A heady stomp comes next, then a meditation for soprano, followed by exotica on “There Is No Profit from Dreams”. Woody phrases emanate from the alto flute, while muted horns buzz like mosquitoes. This piece is the softest, the most accessible … the best in the collection. (Check out the weird noises at the end; sounds like a melting guitar!)

“Into That Nothing-Between” is our sendoff, blending soap-opera organ, smoldering bongos, a horn riff based on “The Theme”, and a raft of electronics. It sounds like the dial has stopped between stations – noisy, but pleasant. The closing cacophonous rush is worthy of “A Day in the Life”, and ends on a similar Big Chord. The resulting work is expansive, expressive, and surprising in a number of ways. Worth hearing if you seek the unusual.