Certain things can just be counted on when it comes to a large ensemble effort organized by Jeff Kaiser. First off, many avant-garde players associated with the Los Angeles music scene will take part. If desirable, a listener with eyes closed can both imagine and actually count these players driving into Kaiser's hometown of Ventura and looking for parking places near the town's City Hall, where most of these gala musical events take place. When it comes time for Kaiser to create a document of the proceedings, rest assured it will come superbly packaged complete with an amusing titling scheme; 13 Themes for a Triskaidekaphobic is a perfect example, the names given to the individual sections seeming to reference the leader's somewhat ludicrous background in the world of fundamentalist preaching.
Nonetheless, it is not an insane assumption to suggest that more concentrated time went into these aspects of packaging and presentation than into the music itself. This is just a matter of practicality, as designing an album cover could normally be the work of one or two people meeting, whereas getting all the members of an "ockodektet" together for extended rehearsal time is probably as impossible as convincing one of Ventura's wealthy retired citizens to take a midnight stroll through the crime-ridden streets of nearby Oxnard. Every composer, conductor, or presenter of this kind of ambitious large ensemble of music would probably agree on one thing and one thing only: there is never enough time to do the thing properly. The many existing recordings of such ventures could collectively serve as a kind of a monument to this reality; this one can be added to the top or the bottom of the pile, basically no worse but not much better than so much other stuff like this. While the realms of free jazz and avant-garde music are where composers such as Kaiser most easily find associates willing to be drafted into large groups, many stylistic aspects of this type of music conspire to turn the composer's original intentions into a kind of faceless mass, lacking in any personality other than the extended instrumental techniques and stream-of-consciousness doodling that is as obvious an element in this type of music as Britney Spears' belly button is to the pop music of the new millennium. Players such as saxophonists Lynn Johnston and Vinny Golia, fantastic as they are, are doing nothing here they haven't done already, blowing away like typical free jazzmen with -- hopefully -- an eye cocked to catch one of Kaiser's cues. The titled themes flow together into an extended performance that lasts more than 70 minutes. How much composed material was utilized and how it relates to the various track titles will be hard to discern for most listeners. Indeed, there is quite a gulf of interest between the tantalizing titles and the actual music. "Gravity Was an Errant Scoundrel," for example, is a heck of a title. But most of these sections don't sound so distinct from each other, the overwhelming effect sometimes consisting simply of players trying to find a note, any note, that might be audible over the sounds of all the other players. In the final "I Wish My Uncle Toby Had Been a Water Drinker," electric guitars and keyboard dominate with quite a hard background coming from the drummers -- this seems to be one of the major changes in timbre in the program. Kaiser has a fantastic musical mind and although it can be heard at work here from time to time, the results are hardly that special. Part of the orchestra plays what sounds like an old brass band theme; the rest of the group freaks out. The horn players randomly choose pitches in order to assemble big, fat dissonant chords behind a soloist, the result sounding like not much more than the needle being dropped anywhere on an Alan Silva Celestrial Communications Orchestra LP. Kaiser can be considered a philosophical descendent of Silva because of the time and energy he puts into trying to create large ensemble works in which improvisers play an important role. These efforts and the existence of so many excellent musicians willing to try to help pull off such events and the resulting surge in community spirit are all extremely important and encouraging aspects of society. While 13 Themes for a Triskaidekaphobic can't be said to be Kaiser's greatest recording, it is literally dripping with goodwill, presenting a promise that one of these nights he is going to do something like this that will really be brilliant.