Free jazz trumpeter/electronics specialist Jeff Kaiser is a man of diverse talents. He has mastered many facets of horn-playing that most brass specialists never consider. Kaiser utilizes all the sounds available on the instrument, although he eschews the common term "extended-techniques," preferring to think of what he does as "all part of playing the horn."
The musician takes the aesthetics of trumpet firebrands like Lester Bowie and Bill Dixon and crafts his own personal language from those advancements, coupled with a specialized computer program that allows him to use multiple effects and sound-shaping tools to completely distort and expand the original signal far beyond its source.
"I'm after a variety of sound worlds," says Kaiser. "And I like the extremes of the dynamics and everything in between. It's really fun because I get the same visceral enjoyment that I had as a guitar player -- like hitting the fuzz box, turning up the amp and just going for it."
Kaiser initially used a microphone placed almost inside the horn that was plugged into dozens of guitar effects pedals. Once he figured he could achieve the same goals with a laptop, the need for carrying around 150 pounds of gear became superfluous.
His original goal in music was quite a bit different than where he finds himself now.
Growing up playing guitar and trumpet in the Presbyterian church, Kaiser received his degree in choral direction and conducting and had even become a minister, fully intending to become a gospel trumpet player.
At Westmont College he met former Anthony Braxton collaborator John Rapson who turned his head around.
"He introduced me to music that just blew my mind," Kaiser said. "Braxton and the Art Ensemble of Chicago, and he personally introduced me to Vinny Golia, Nels and Alex Cline and Roberto Miranda."
Kaiser's music is fierce and uncompromising, often taking listeners on a sonic adventure they might not be prepared for. Making music of such intensity is a virtual guarantee of a lifetime of limited commercial opportunities. The trumpeter, well known for his wicked sense of humor, shrugs off the idea of high-paying gigs to throngs of adoring fans.
"Vinny Golia would call it 'the pilgrimage to obscurity,' which is also the title of one of his records," Kaiser said. "I make this music because I love it. I love the sound of it, I love the idea of it, I love the feeling of playing it. So, it's really about being placed in front of appropriate audiences. It's nice to be able to introduce people to this music, but it's never planned as an assault or anything like that. There is a kind of high-energy distortion to it."
One of Kaiser's most consistent collaborators is UCSD professor David Borgo, a saxophonist who also incorporates laptop electronics with the trumpeter in a duo known as KaiBorg. Their music ranges from dead-serious caterwaul to moments of audacious hilarity. It can clear a room of casual listeners pretty quickly.
The trumpeter recently returned to UCSD to obtain his PhD, and is teaching a few classes as well.
"Jeff is a remarkable fellow, equal parts artist engineer, programmer, scholar, label exec and concert promoter," says Borgo. "Somehow he manages to do it all, and almost always with a smile on his face! He's also really great in the classroom. I've seen him connect with everyone from freshmen to fellow grad students by balancing profound ideas with a splash of humor."
Indeed, Kaiser's indefatigable energy and boundless ideas have fueled his stewardship of not one but two independent record labels for many years. The oldest one, pfMENTUM Records has over 50 releases by the cream of the Southern California avant-garde, including discs by multi-instrumentalist Golia, Wilco guitarist Nels Cline and trombone virtuoso Michael Vlatkovich. The newer company, Angry Vegan, was formed to document experimental music outside of any ties to jazz -- including ambient electronica and what Kaiser calls "twisted pop music."
Running a record label dedicated to documenting music with limited commercial potential is an inherently dangerous proposition, but Kaiser's practical business model and selfless ideology make it work.
"The longevity of pfMENTUM is based on the fact that I don't need to make a profit from it. I make a little from it, but we're not even talking about a car payment. It really is about enabling the musicians to put their music out there. Combined between our two labels our output is just about 100 releases."
Between graduate studies, running two labels and teaching courses, does Kaiser even have time to devote to the trumpet, a notoriously demanding instrument?
"I still practice every day that I'm able, and my practice routine is the standard classical trumpet method. I spend a lot of time on the horn. Historically, I would say the trumpet practice outweighs the electronics astronomically."
For perspective, I asked Michael Dessen, a critically acclaimed trombonist who also utilizes live electronics in performance to describe Kaiser's achievements.
"Jeff has been honing his own unique approach to live electronics for many years. He builds everything from scratch to suit his own aesthetic, so it's really a process of creating one's own sound and toolkit, much like more traditional jazz improvisers do in the acoustic realm. The last time I heard him, it was an exhilarating performance -- a dense, otherworldly, sonic rollercoaster, playful and serious in all the right ways."
I've had the privilege of catching Kaiser several times in the last few years, and each time ranks as a highpoint in my listening experience. I'll keep you posted on future opportunities to have your mind blown by this amazing musician.
Robert Bush Robert Bush is a freelance jazz writer who has been exploring the San Diego improvised music scene for more than 30 years.