Jeff Kaiser, Ventura's stalwart champion of improvised and experimental music, turned 40 recently and put on a birthday bash in suitable style. The public was invited, and they showed up in droves to Ventura City Hall for two hours of uncharted and often inspiring sounds.
The tall wooden statue of Padre Serra in the atrium seemed to stand over the proceedings like a sentry who looked a bit suspicious of the mayhem unfolding.
What the crowd heard was a classic, yet special, Kaiser event, as he led his ad hoc ensemble, 16 players strong, made up mostly of musicians from Los Angeles' left-end jazz scene. Kaiser put in a few choice solos on trumpet and fluegelhorn but was mainly the ringleader, traffic director and chief conceptualist.
Kaiser's unusual score mostly used graphic notations--shapes, swooping lines and visual cues--to guide the musicians, along with Kaiser's own expressive hand gestures in the practice known as "conduction" (a merger of conducting and improvisation).
The party began with a reading by Keith McMullen, the co-producer in Kaiser's record label, pfMentum. As musicians twittered, McMullen recounted his migration here from the Midwest, his discovery of a new music/fringe scene in the region, and how this path crossed with the "composite beast called Kaiser." "I was pleased to see I was in Kansas no more," McMullen said.
After being brought to the stage in a cheap pine coffin, Kaiser assumed his command post to summon an ensemble sound that was alternately big and anarchic, then soft and ethereal. His fine resources included renowned improvisers like multi-reed player Vinnie Golia, percussionist Brad Dutz (whose lyrical marimba solo was probably the prettiest moment of the night) and the tastefully wild sax man Eric Barber.
The concert's second half opened up with a 10-note musical line played in unison, and the evening's first regular rhythmic pulse. Suddenly, we heard Wayne Peet's ominous organ chords, like a fragment from the kitschy horror film classic "Carnival of Souls." It was that kind of night, with echoes and ideas freely bouncing off the walls. At the end, even Padre Serra seemed impressed.
A Sibling Thing: Art-watchers around the area are familiar with the work of the Brooks family. Now, the Ventura County Museum of History and Art is hosting a gathering of art by the four siblings.
In terms of media and style, the sisters--raised on a ranch in the north end of Ventura County--are just different enough, yet complementary, to make for an informative and cohesive show.
Meredith Brooks Abbott, who still lives on the family ranch property, is the oil painter of the bunch. She shows considerable warmth, but also inquiry, in the introspective "The Picking Bag" and "The Island Coat," in which everyday objects are viewed as lived-in things, but with tender toughness of painterly style. "Eighteen" is a fine example of her portraiture, with a slumping teenager in an "Earth Day" T-shirt, lovingly detailed.
Palmer "Blue" Brooks Butler, now based in Tucson, is a watercolorist whose spareness of detail and economy of line nonetheless evoke the spirit of place. Her list of painted places in this show includes the Brooks ranch itself.
The sister who veers furthest from conventional media is Whitney Brooks Hansen, whose unusual woodcut technique was recently amply on view at the Easton Gallery in Montecito. As seen in "Pink," a portrait of a funky truck, and "Abott Barn," Hansen's art presents an intriguing balance between the sturdy structure of woodcuts and the wandering color fields of painting.
More traditional woodcut technique was observed by the late Hope Brooks Merryman, who lived in New York City for years. Her classic woodcut image "Shearing" is a stark image of hunched-over laborers reminiscent of Kathe Kollwitz's work.
Lines are not cleanly demarcated between which sister did what, and in which aesthetic direction. One of the striking pieces can be found in the back hallway--the moody, half-dematerialized (or half-materialized) watercolor "Cider Apples" by Hope. The farm buildings are viewed as hulking forms, with golden heaps of apples in the foreground, almost pushed to abstraction.
A possible subplot behind the exhibition has to do with the question of whether artistic instinct comes from nature or nurture? In the case of the Brooks family, it could be both.
"The Brooks Sisters Paint," Ventura County Museum of History and Art, 100 E. Main St., Ventura. Ends Feb. 24. Museum hours: Tuesdays-Sundays, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. (805) 653-0323.