X/Y Goran Kajfeš

May 28, 2011

The Jazz Mann

“X/Y” is Goran Kajfes’ third album of “crossover electro-jazz” since 2001. It is an ambitious work for the Swedish artist, who is a relative unknown outside his own country. A double album, its two CDs come beautifully presented in a slim hardback art book which, since Kajfes co-runs (with David Osterberg) the Headspin Recordings imprint on which it is released, is effectively self-published. Within the pages of the book, every track is represented by a sympathetic full colour art print, each one by a contemporary Scandinavian artist.

The two CDs present music from two projects that are markedly different. The disc titled “Y” teams Kajfes with a single other musician and co-composer, David Österberg. Österberg is (like Kajfes) new to me. A trawl of the internet suggests that he is probably best known for his co-composition of the soundtrack to the Swedish environmental documentary ‘The Planet’. His résumé, like Kajfes’, suggests that he is heavily invested in the technological aspects of music production. Goran Kajfes is a session player, soundtrack composer, arranger who has worked with artists as diverse as José Gonzales, Stina Nordenstam, Lester Bowie, and The Soundtrack Of Our Lives. He is also a producer, notably of Oddjob’s recently acclaimed album ‘Clint’. Disc X is for a big band, the Subtropic Arkestra, which unites jazz and rock musicians with featured artists from global/roots music. More on that later.


The tracks on “Y” comprise a suite, “Perfect Temperature for Leaving Home”, Parts 1-9. Its blend of human warmth and electro-acoustic synthesis combines the cosmiche electronica of Tangerine Dream with the fourth-world ambient of Jon Hassell. In the pages of the book the instruments deployed on “Y” are itemised for the hardware fetishists among us. In addition to piano, trumpet, claves, snare drum and cymbal, Kajfes and Österberg play Oberheim 4 Voice Custom Modular Synthesizer, Doepfer Modular Synthesizer, Roland SH-5 Synthesizer, Hammond L-100 with Leslie Speaker Cabinet 147, Solina String Ensemble, Fender Rhodes 88 Mk 2, SIAC V2.01 Reaktor Ensemble, Steiner EVI - Breath Controlled Synthesizer, and a sampler. This arsenal is deployed with commendable restraint, and the nine parts of the suite have a pleasing unity. Or, to look at it another way, “Y” is, to be critical, airless, hermetic, and tad too genteel. Personally, I would have liked a few rough edges here and there, and the occasional hint of danger. But that’s just me. On its own terms “Y” is pretty convincing.

On “Perfect Temperature for Leaving Home Part 6”, easily my favourite track, a bed of small sounds is cross-cut by runnels and enlivened by liquid drips and ripples, across which Kajfes solos hauntingly. It’s a subtle, low-key, yet intricate construction. The initially stately ceremonial of the following “Part 7” , soon cut through by waves of electronic sound that prompt a more emphatic re-visitation of its theme, moves things on nicely. The pulses of “Part 8” are more forceful still, implacable throbs that Kajfes tops with an understated smoky theme. Much of the interest here is in the electronic sounds that define not just the rhythm or pulse of the music but also its warp and woof, and are the source of the incidental sounds that enliven proceedings and draw the listener in, against the natural tendency to focus on the seductively sleek electronic surface. The acoustic instruments (other than Kajfes’ trumpet) are used mostly to flesh out electronic timbres, and make them resonate more deeply. Kajfes’ soloing is mostly subservient to the electronics. His approach on “Part 3”, however, another highlight, echoes Miles Davis’ tender, slightly mournful muted style, and also carries traces of Miles’ collaborations with Hermeto Pascoal on “Live Evil”.

Collectively, the Subtropic Arkestra are: Goran Kajfes trumpet, percussion, synthesizer bass; Suranjana Ghosh Tablas; Per Johansson baritone saxophone, flute, bass drum; Jonas Kullhammar tenor saxophone, flute, bass saxophone; Jesper Nordenström organ, Fender Rhodes, Logan String Melody; Robert Östlund Moog, electric guitar; Andreas Söderström acoustic and electric guitar, key harp; Johan Lindström electric guitar, guzen; Majid Bekkas vocals and oud; Hanna Ekström violin; Johan Berthling acoustic and electric basses; Johan Holmegard, Fredrik Björling and Lars Skoglund drums. Not everyone plays all of the time. Although the music can sometimes be densely layered, Kajfes orchestration brings out the vivid colours of his ensemble with effective restraint.

Some critics have compared the Subtropic Arkestra’s work on X to Miles Davis circa “Bitches Brew”. That comparison is pretty wide of the mark. Davis’ classic electric period made excellent use of raw electricity, emphatic effects such as Hendrix’s beloved wah-wah pedal, and the gritty, revolutionary rhythms of Sly and the Family Stone. Those influences are here, but the raw power of Davis’ brew has here been focused and streamlined. You might rather file “X” between “Tone Dialling” by Ornette Coleman’s Prime Time and “Site Anubis” by Paul Schutze’s Phantom City. Like those albums, “X” features acoustic instruments embedded within a clean, widescreen studio production. The grist of human error has been sieved out for an even listenability. The Subtropic Arkestra’s name tips the nod to Sun Ra, and they cover a track by Don Cherry, but their sound is, in a sense, much more synthetic than either of these influences might suggest. More valid comparisons might be with the work of Jon Hassell or Nils Petter Molvaer. The one Don Cherry project that does bear direct comparison is Cherry’s Multikulti band of circa 1990. Multikulti blended jazz and world music in much the same way as Kajfes does on “X”, albeit with a more earthy afro-American jazz sound (check out, for example, Cherry’s classic track “Multikulti Soothsayer” which blends his pocket trumpet with doussn’gouni and synthesizer).

Kajfes’ “Sand Boogie” instantly fixes the core Arkestra sound: repeated bass lines, densely intertwined drum breaks and rhythms (courtesy of at least two of the ensemble’s three drummers), a vaguely Oriental melody and some Pharaoh Sanders-lite saxophone. The cover of Don Cherry’s “Solidarity (For Moki)” initially has a spaghetti western feel, and is thereafter dominated by bustling drums, riffing flute and plenty of solo space for Kajfes, while “Solar Still” has tabla embellished by oud, acoustic guitar and harmonised trumpet. “Subtropics/Kankani Boulila” has the vocal cries of Moroccan Gnawa artist Majid Bekkas and a punchy bass line piercing a busy, increasingly dense rhythm that’s also intermittently strafed by electric guitar. “Dinner with Inner” mixes a layered electronic loop with more tabla and processed trumpet, later layering electric guitar, horn riffs, hand-claps and tambourine. It’s heady stuff, but too groove-centric ever to seem overcooked. “Sarasvati” is the knock-out punch, beginning with stately trumpet/saxophone euphony but soon taking off on the sort of buoyant melodic progression seldom heard since the golden age of seventies jazz-inflected film soundtracks. The track gains in density and intensity, and as the drummers heat up the rhythm the horns briefly touch on a freer, wilder vibe before reining in to allow a bright restatement of the theme, from which the flute has free rein to extrapolate a soaring solo. I think I also hear the key harp (the Swedish nyckelharpa, a relative to the hurdy gurdy) in action here. Finally, the equally excellent “39 Degrees” offsets a naïve synth pattern with harp, flute, and skittish percussion electronic washes that are intertwined with the natural resonances of the violin.

4/5 Tim Owen