The multifaceted Jeff Kaiser celebrated his 50th birthday on Saturday night by gathering more than 20 top-drawer musicians at UCSD for a special performance, but it was the audience that received the gift.
If free jazz was always this joyous, creative and downright fun, then Anthony Braxton and the Art Ensemble of Chicago would chart like the Beatles.
Kaiser's creative brain works in mysterious, hilarious ways. He's also got a smartass sense of humor, and a committed indifference to the idea that his music might offend those with tiny ears.
The musicians in the Ockodektet assembled onstage, and then a ripple of laughter bounced around the acoustically pristine Conrad Prebys Music Center when Kaiser emerged from a side door, wearing a blue fez, a blue jacket with a dozen or so baby dolls fastened to it, carrying a large bag filled with noisemakers--which he proceeded to toss to members of the audience, while the band rang their own tiny bells.
He removed the hat and jacket, sat down at a pump organ, and with a battery-powered megaphone, began singing/reciting a poem about "father death", perhaps as a tribute to his newly discovered sense of mortality.
He then stood up and began conducting the sprawling score for 132350, a piece written for this band, and occasion. Over huge, powerful harmony from the brass and reed sections, while the triple basses of Mark Dresser, Jim Connolly and Steuart Liebig were lightly strumming, trombone wizard Michael Dessen surfaced with a wicked and distorted solo, using his slide to bend notes into submission. When the horns adapted a written unison that sounded like a bi-polar circus band, saxophonist Andrew Pask squeezed notes from his soprano like a sociopath strangling puppies. While the brass lines diminished in volume, Dresser and Connolly elicited strange harmonics and amplified overtones that set the stage for trumpeter Kris Tiner to unleash a tart solo full of clarion-call bursts and sputters. The reeds began trilling while Vinny Golia spun webs of piccolo tapestry over William Roper's strange cimbasso ( a hybrid contrabass trombone/tuba instrument), soliloqy. Trombonist Michael Vlatkovich joined Roper for a brief low-brass duet before the reeds took over with ghostly overtones in ultrahigh frequency range. Trumpeter Brad Henkel took the already "outside" soloing up several notches with his feature-- he used a combination of lips, a balloon and a disengaged mouthpiece to squeak and squall his way into the most outrageous trumpet spot I've ever heard.
The entire orchestra blew repetitive pulses that sounded like an analog telephone busy signal on steroids. All the reeds switched to sopranos, except for Golia, who took up the tiny soprillo saxophone for a section of altissimo register trilling. The brass came tumbling in with bombastic rumbling clusters that sounded like Stan Kenton on a Lithium bender. Trumpeters Dan Clucas and John Fumo sparred briefly until Clucas wrangled a smearing, slurring solo for himself.
Then from stage left, eerie sounds diverted one's attention as vocalist Bonnie Barnett and flautist Dick Wood sauntered down the aisle, up to the stage where truly strange vocalizing and flute hissing added to the mayhem. Bassist Connolly sat at the edge of the stage bowing his musical saw while the dual drumming of Rich West and Brad Dutz built a wall of percolating bongo and trap drum metronomics over which the brass unwrapped a "Twilight Zone" theme. Trumpeter John Fumo dazzled with a virtuosic solo that sounded like Freddie Hubbard taking a lot of left turns. Kaiser gesticulated spastic "conductions" and the brass players all held aluminum pans to the bells of their instruments. Tracy McMullen sighed and cooed into her tenor saxophone before abruptly veering into a wild Archie Shepp series of gravelly runs underpinned by the tuba gymnastics of Jonathan Piper. Golia let loose with a wild serpentine soprillo solo over the drum-choir like harmonic manipulations of Liebig's 6 string electric bass.
After an orgiastic orchestral free-for-all, the dynamics drew down, and Kaiser returned to the pump organ and megaphone to croon his way through the 1963 Skeeter Davis ballad, (Don't They Know it's) "The End Of The World", accompanied by the over-the-top emotional musical saw commentary of Connolly, who laid down a bed of vibrato as genuine as the Rev. Jimmy Swaggart's tears.
And that was just the first set.
After a brief intermission, Kaiser and company returned to play "13 Themes For A Triskaidekaphobic." Beginning with huge orchestral chords that sounded like a mix of a Bach chorale and a Wagnerian opera, the din quieted soon to yield to Tom McNalley's spaced out slide maneuvers on a National steel guitar. Andrew Pask took a burbling Dolphy-esque bass clarinet solo over the roiling percussion of Dutz and West. Dresser did his amplified overtone imitation of a jaws-harp having an epileptic seizure while flute specialist Emily Hay growled and wove a lattice-work of ornamentation around Roper's tuba. Roper took over with an improvised vocal recitation and multi-phonic singing over a percussion shoot-out.
Kaiser signaled a new section featuring a long melody that shifted from brass to woodwinds, then Pask inserted a soaring soprano solo, peeling tones like a snake shedding its skin. Golia followed with a rare spot on the alto saxophone, on which like all of his other horns, he possesses a uniquely identifiable timbre. A lurching, stuttering orchestral theme emerged, and then David Borgo wove a hypnotic middle-eastern type improvisation on a strange looking double end-blown instrument. Trumpeter Dan Rosenboom blew bold declaratives with pinpoint articulation and gently smearing vibrato. Piper got in another highlight solo, alternating between full bodied resonant runs and sputtering skeins. Kris Tiner climbed back on top with a slurring solo full of bleats and frantic forays into the upper register.
Roper's tuba and Hay's flute wrapped around each other in a double-helix of contrasting ranges, weaving dark lines of ponderous insight while West hammered orchestral bells that sounded like multiple doorbells ringing in an empty mansion. Suddenly Wayne Peet's piano took on a Hollywood dream sequence scenario over the soft clusters and quiet musing of McNalley's acoustic guitar as the orchestra volume dropped to silence.
Bravo, Maestro! Happy Birthday, Jeff Kaiser !
Concert photo by Barbara Wise