Themes for a Triskaidekaphobic
pfMentum CD 013

Maybe it’s something in the water – earthquake run off perhaps? – but it’s evident that an awfully large number of Southern Californian improvisers are forming themselves into larger groups.

Oh sure SoCal has always had large groups – usually studio-musician staffed dream bands or kicks bands that play the arrangements of Glenn Miller, Stan Kenton or Count Basie. But these newer ensembles work out a way that multiple players can mix freeform improvisation with conducted, polyphonic work.

Los Angeles-based multi-reedist Vinny Golia organized a succession of large groups over the years, drummer Adam Rudolph has his Organic Orchestra and drummer Moe Staiano his MOE!kestra. Percussionist Nathan Hubbard’s Skeleton Key Orchestra is in San Diego’s, and trumpeter Jeff Kaiser Ockodektet, featured here, is a fixture in Ventura.

Kaiser, whose 19-piece aggregation includes West Coast pacesetters like Golia, trombonist Michael Vlatkovich and acoustic guitarist Ernesto Diaz-Infante, demonstrates the pros and cons of these kinds of sessions with this CD.

Inventive, well orchestrated and staffed with as many exceptional soloists as you’d find anywhere, THEMES FOR A TRISKAIDEKAPHOBIC is – no surprise – a 13-section suite. Built around 13, cleverly titled compositions that run from slightly more than a minute to less than nine minute, there are few tutti passages and plenty of room for nearly every player to express herself or himself, solo or in duos and choirs.

However, at a titch over 73 minutes in length, the performance seems to be nearly endless. At points the listener is reduced to voyeur, adding up the themes and instrumental outbreaks as they lumber by. Furthermore, local support apparently allows the band to record at Ventura City Hall. The size and properties of the room aren’t noted, but it’s no recording studio. Solos and passages are frequently dampened, with the sonorous timbres of tuba player Mark Weaver suffering the most.

From the stirrings offbeat harmonies of the first theme: “My Uncle Toby’s Apologetical Oration”, which sounds sort of like an out-of-tune Mariachi Christmas carol with its massed brass and crashing cymbals to “I wish My Uncle Toby Had Been a Water-drinker”, track number 13, there’s much to like here. The finale, for instance, features Tom McNalley, G.E. Stinson, or perhaps both guitarists, blasting out speedy distorted reverb, while drummer Richie West lays on the backbeat and Wayne Peet resonates organ lines over the horn section that references Jimmy Smith’s big band sessions. Finally a menagerie of duck quacks, honks and rattles from all concerned allow the piece to slink away.

Using polyharmony and polyphony, Kaiser’s themes sneak and shuffle around one another, or are built up in layers, with squeaking reeds, for instance, playing on top of contrapuntal clarinet tremolos and sliced by guitar counterlines. Appropriately as well, the orchestral voicing clears away just in time for impassioned cadenzas from suitable soloists.

One who always impresses is trombonist Vlatkovich. An associate of Kaiser, in his own Brass Trio, and in Golia’s projects, his avant-tailgate slurs are put to good use here. Most excitingly, his braying rubato lines and the trumpeter’s hocketing screeches hook up to drizzle heraldic notes on top of bell-ringing percussion and the reed section moving forward in lockstep.

Multi-reedist Golia is one of those reed players. At different times his snorting baritone saxophone fills add fiber to the other woodwinds or his buzzing bass clarinet lines take off in double counterpoint against another soloist. The Beverly Hills-based player also contributes sparse vibrations from sopranino or clarinet to link up “The Accusing Spirit Which Flew Up to Heaven’s Chancery” with one trumpeter – Kaiser, Dan Clucas, Kris Tiner? – who screams himself into Cat Anderson dog-whistle territory. This takes place on top of lumbering unison chords that sound as if they’ve just migrated in from one of Anthony Braxton’s Ghost Trance pieces, with Weaver’s whinnying tuba and Brad Dutz rumbling kettle drums peeking through the quasi-march tempo.

Nimble, high pitched flute work that introduce other tracks may come from Emily Hay however, and when expressive, slurring multiphonics are needed to segment or enliven rhythm section heavy passages, the go-to guys are likely alto saxophonist Jason Mears or soprano and tenor saxophonist Eric Barber – no soloists are identified.

Making their presence felt among the parlando cadenzas that make up some of the other sound pictures, by virtue of being the only player on his or her instrument, certain musicians are more easily identifiable. Weaver for instance is able to use his lowing tuba to work up a powerful mid-section vamp on an early number, ricocheting smears that stand out from staccato percussion underpinning.

Diaz-Infante gets to sound his distinctive patterning – over the strings, beneath the bridge and up near the tuning pegs on the penultimate track. And, throughout, if it’s West, who is responsible for the perfectly timed tap dance-like drum solos, then percussionist Dutz should be credited for the cymbal claps and tick-tock small instrument accents that appear elsewhere.

Adding to the polyphonic writing that revolves around a tonal centre, are massed crescendos and decrescendos, which often move the band into the composition’s next section. Continuum is provided by bubbling loops and fluttering reverb, courtesy of Peet’s electronics and theremin.

In short, big band fanciers of the free music variety should be impressed by this session, and those who cower at the number 13 may be cured of their phobia if they hear it. Analysing the overall sound however, the only superstition that you hope Kaiser and his large groups avoid in the future is fear of recording studios.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. My Uncle Toby’s Apologetical Oration 2. Gravity Was an Errant Scoundrel 3. This Sweet Fountain of Science 4. The Curate’s Folly Betwixt Them 5. Devout, Venerable, Hoary-headed Man, Meekly Holding Up a Box 6. The Stranger’s Nose was No More Heard Of 7. Uncle Toby Understood The Nature Of a Parabola 8. The Accusing Spirit Which Flew Up to Heaven’s Chancery 9. A Thousand of My Father’s Most Subtle Syllogisms 10. His Life Was Put in Jeopardy by Words 11. The Heat and Impatience of His Thirst 12. Nothing But the Fermentation 13. I wish My Uncle Toby Had Been a Water-drinker

Personnel: Jeff Kaiser (conductor and trumpet); Dan Clucas, Kris Tiner (trumpets); Michael Vlatkovich (trombone); Eric Sbar (euphonium and valve-trombone); Mark Weaver (tuba); Lynn Johnston (soprano and alto saxophones, clarinet and alto clarinet); Vinny Golia (sopranino, soprano and baritone saxophones, clarinet and bass clarinets, flute and bass flute); Jason Mears (alto saxophone); Eric Barber (soprano and tenor saxophones); Emily Hay (flutes); Ernesto Diaz-Infante (acoustic guitar); Tom McNalley (guitar); G.E. Stinson (guitar and electronics); Wayne Peet (organ, theremin and electronics); Jim Connolly and Hal Onserud (basses); Richie West (drums and percussion); Brad Dutz (percussion)