With most peoples' ears attuned to common musical elements such as melody, harmony, and rhythm, free improvisation and contemporary classical composition can sometimes come across like disturbing chaos. There are often precious few recognizable patterns to hang one's hat on, and with extended techniques used by some instruments, it can often be next to impossible to ascertain who is doing what. The challenge, however, is to try interpreting such works by absorbing the dissonances and apparent cacophonies on a gut-instinct level, leaving oneself open to trust one's purely instinctive emotional responses.
Trumpeter/composer/PfMentum label head Jeff Kaiser has managed to create a successful career in pursuit of the juncture between free music and structured contemporary composition. Closely associated with other Left Coast artists, including woodwind multi-instrumentalist Vinny Golia, percussionist Brad Dutz, and contrabassist Steuart Liebig, he possesses a remarkable ability to squeeze new and often unusual sounds out of his horn. As a composer, he favours shape over form, creating compositions that are more about texture and ambience than conventional conceits. His Ockodektet is an ambitious group of eleven fearless free improvisers who also understand the meaning of more abstract construction, and where the two can coexist.
The six-movements of "The Alchemical Mass represent, perhaps, Kaiser's most ambitious undertaking to date. The brass and woodwind-heavy ensemble, in this case augmented by the Ojai Camerata choir, traverse Kaiser's often dense and deeply-layered work with a remarkable ability to follow some clearly unconventional conducting by Kaiser and Dr. Wyant Morton. Over the course of 34 minutes, the piece moves effortlessly from spare and diffuse improvisation to a maelstrom of sound that is often unsettling, reflecting a profound appreciation of music as colour. What thematic form can be found comes primarily from the choir and its Gregorian chant-based libretto, which nevertheless echoes influence by the works of 20th Century composers like György Ligeti and sometimes breaks down into apparent confusion. And while Brad Dutz's percussion and Richie West's drums are used primarily to add weight, there are brief periods where specific rhythms do emerge.
Still, despite the piece's overall grave mood, brief moments of beauty do arise from the discord, as in the beginning of the second movement, "Kyrie, which features the choir supported by little more than light percussion.
Revolving more around collective improvisation, the five-part "Suite Solutio is closer to a jazz aesthetic. Bassist Jim Connolly and drummer Richie West open the suite with a light pulse that provides both a rhythmic and harmonic anchor for the Kaiser/Diaz-Infante Sextet's more abstruse free play from Kaiser, Ernesto Diaz-Infante's prepared acoustic guitar, and Scot Ray's trombone. Still, this doesn't last long before a darker mood is introduced, leading into the totally unstructured "Part III and the fast-moving "Part IV.
The Alchemical Mass/Suite Solutio works best when one doesn't try to find an anchor. Broader exploration combines with complex organization to create an album that, while not for the faint-at-heart, manages to create its own unique ambience.
Personnel: The Alchemical Mass: Woodwinds: Vinny Golia, Eric Barber, Jason Mears; Trumpet/Flugelhorn: Kris Tiner; Trombone: Michael Vlatkovich; Tuba: Mark Weaver; Bass: Jim Connolly; Prepared Acoustic Guitar: Ernesto Diaz-Infante; Acoustic Piano: Wayne Peet; Percussion: Brad Dutz; Drum Set: Richie West; Conducted by Jeff Kaiser and Dr. Wyant Morton, with the Ojai Camerata: vocals
Suite Solutio: Trumpet/Flugelhorn: Jeff Kaiser; Prepared Acoustic Guitar: Ernesto Diaz-Infante; Trombone: Scott Ray; Bass: Jim Connolly; Percussion: Brad Dutz; Drum Set: Richie West