It’s tempting to pine for the good old days of music listening. Those sturdy packages, legible liner notes on pleasingly printed paper, resulted from big teams of people working to get you a well-crafted product. How comforting and reliable.
We never had anything much like Kafari’s “Riffs and Lullabies vol. II,” though. The Portland artist in his newest album gives us a completely naked production, his piano recorded by a Sony ICD-UX533 compact digital voice recorder over the course of five years or so. In a good set of headphones, you are in the room with him, hearing each creak of the bench he sits on, the breaths he takes as he starts and stops the recording.
It is beautiful and arresting, a call to slow down and listen with ears wide open as Kafari picks through forms and sketches to build songs that sometimes meditate, sometimes travel from place to place. Streaming off Bandcamp (if there exists a “vol I,” I don’t know where to find it), with so little to act as intermediary, the experience is especially intimate, like watching him from a hidden camera.
Musically, the album exists in a place between his 2018 work, “Beholding,” which was a bit more polished, with production help from Noah Cole (Cambiata, Grand Hotel, etc.), but similarly focused on solo piano, and his early “Meditations” from 2014, a series of piano sketches numbered one through seven. The songs here are distinct enough that they don’t blend together and there is a feel of cohesiveness, but Kafari often sounds like he’s working through something, trying to find a through path, as though these songs might have future iterations.
In the notes to the work, he says his intention is “to care for myself and to cultivate a personal relationship with music that is expressive, healing, and that serves my needs at the time.” He has explored this idea of healing through music in much of his recent work, including the pandemic album, “Blanket of Black,” released in August of 2021, which can be caustic and frantic, a 22-song opus. There, he blends in some alternative sounds, shuffling, ambient noise, beats and clacks like you’re watching him through static, or a skipping CD.
These pieces are anything but that, emanating a calmness that might prove a salve for frantic nerves in what have been anxious times for many. There is an inherent challenge in them — for some reason they remind of Frederick Kuhn’s abstract NONSTOP series of paintings, locally — to sit and stare, to hear Kafari work through forms of notes as though picking them up and looking at them from different angles.
“Afterhours” might remind you of Bill Evans, who Kafari clipped and sampled as part of his “Knockturnes” project, where familiar runs get shaken and stirred. Here, there is a call for late-night, candle-lit bars, boozy couples ogling each other over ice cubes, cigarettes burning because who’s going to stop you.
But then all of a sudden it’s playful, a mid-piece bouncing down the stairs, then an abrupt left-hand bound. He trills a lick and then hits stop. Part of the fun of listening through the entire album is hearing the sighs and movements as he hits stop; on “Cradle,” the only piece to feature a droning organ sound, he works a plaintive right hand and then mutters, “I kinda like that, man,” before hitting the button.
If you have heard Hania Reni or Alexis Ffrench, you have the general idea of much of the ambient nature of the work. It’s not the pyrotechnics that might invade a classical or bop jazz piano recording, but more of an atmospheric thing. On “Planets,” perhaps thanks to the mental suggestion of the name, Kafari even seems to pick out a circling system with his right hand as his left offers single-note suns. Then there is a melodic freelance — a shooting star rushing by — before the spinning order of the heavens returns.
This would be kickass behind a space telescope documentary of some kind, for sure.
With “Sparks,” a left-hand voice charges in, the right hand murmuring assurances before taking the conversation to a place that forces the left hand to vibrantly re-enter, seemingly unable to control its enthusiasm. There is so much joy and wonder here.
Elsewhere, there is remorse, longing, some fear and anxiety. To hear it expressed might allow for a personal exploration of those emotions, should you take the time to engage and give it your undivided attention. But it works, too, just to have it on while you’re doing a bit of something else as a way to make it more enjoyable. It’s great for that.
Sam Pfeifle can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
2 weeks, 5 songs
Sparxsea – “Forever Love” | The third song from an upcoming full-length, this is a sad and reflective piece, full of emotion derived from failed relationships and loved ones gone too soon. Tim Reynolds guests on acoustic guitar, plus Morphine’s Jerome Deupree on drums, to create a pretty sense of loss.
Joel Thetford – “Are We Through Now” | Old-timey and country, Thetford here crafts a down-in-the-mouth piece that starts spare but picks up a little bit, with light hi-hats and rim shots, plus the ghost of a backing vocal in the chorus.
Joshua Eden – “400 Miles” | A stomping New Orleans blues, with sultry horns from Brian Graham and a guest turn from Dominic Lavoie, this is the best track from “Rust and Sand,” Eden’s first full length since 2014. With a growly voice and plenty of presence, this is a lot of fun.
Celebrity Handshake – “Miserable Garden” | A caustic and cacophonous three-piece rock bit, this is a representative track from the full-length Aaron Haines project “Final Education”: “Even the earth itself is cancerous.” Not for those looking for the bright side.
Alyssa Pascal – “Frozen Dumplings” | Part of a demo record Pascal calls “The Litmus Configuration,” it’s hard not to hear echoes of Frankie Cosmos here, which isn’t a bad thing. “I thought that we had dinner plans, but then you just wanted to go to bed / I made some frozen dumplings from your freezer as you went on and on about how you couldn’t wait to see her / I thought you cared for me.”
— Sam Pfeifle