Pianist and producer Kiefer has played since he was little and started making beats at around 12 years old. Making the move from San Diego to Los Angeles, he studied under jazz guitarist Kenny Burrell (allegedly going through bad times right now) over at UCLA’s Jazz Studies program – here, he started to combine the two disciplines, exploring beats without samples.
Bridges is his second release for the avant-garde Stones Throw Records, an extended player following his album Happysad from 2018. His debut album Kickinit Alone was released on sister label Leaving Records the year before that.
Bridges was announced with a series of animations, attention-grabbing earworms launched onto Instagram which captured Kiefer’s playful boom bap and keys perfectly. “There’s an artist who goes by Mason London, he’s just a phenomenal illustrator and animator that I found on Instagram when looking for illustrators, photographers, all kinds of people. I stumbled on his stuff one day and was blown away. Right around that time, I was about ready to turn in Bridges, I went into Stones Throw and I said, ‘Hey, we should release some animations with the songs’, and they saw the stuff and they loved it. I think people really liked them.
“There are a lot of cool easter eggs. If you look at the liquor store one, there’s a vending machine and all the buttons where you would normally select drinks are actually Stones Throw albums. A little ‘X’ for the NxWorries one, there’s a Madvillain button, a Jaylib button, and then – you know the MF Doom album, Mm.. Food? On the cover he’s eating cereal, so they made the cereal that he’s eating on the cover, those cereal boxes are being sold at the store. It’s an alternative universe where all those Stones Throw elements are being sold at the store. Pretty cool.
“I’m very happy to be a part of Stones Throw,” he ruminates. He hasn’t altered his style or tried to ‘fit in’ since joining the label. “They signed me to specifically to do my thing – I make my music the same way every time. The same principles in mind, I just try to do things better every time.”
Bridges does, however, see natural developments in Kiefer’s sound – he’s been able to spread his wings a little more. “There’s a number of skills that I have that I hadn’t used on my previous two albums, mainly my ability as an arranger. I just wanted the arrangements to be a little more in-depth and interesting. I wanted all the songs to have intros, outros, and bridges… hence the name,” he smiles.
“The album’s more just me trying a little harder, honestly, on those things. The first few albums I think were more about sonic palettes and how to play keyboard solos over beats – I don’t think there’s a lot of people that do that well, and I felt that I could, so I was showing off some other skills that I thought were really cool. But the arrangement really wasn’t at the forefront, and I wanted to show what happens if I do that a little more, and I think it made it a little more interesting.”
Kiefer is part of a huge creative community in Los Angeles, which in the past decade plus has seen an explosion in recognition not least because of the launch of the beats-driven Low End Theory club night back in 2006. Are there pros and cons to being part of such a creative community? “I think it’s great, I don’t see any cons with it. There’s an insane amount of talent. It’s a really diverse scene with a ton of different things being tried out. You can take influence from any one at any time because there’s so much going on and it’s so accessible.
“I honestly don’t work with very many people. The only real collaborations that I’ve released have been with Anderson .Paak and Kaytranada, and this rapper named Ivan Ave who’s really dope. I generally like working on my own, I’m pretty independent.
“If I do call people over to work on stuff, it’s really easy to do that.” Kiefer was part of fellow Stones Throw artist Mndsgn’s live band, but they’re friends above collaborators. “Usually when I work with other people it’s to play keys on stuff. When me and Mndsgn hang out we usually just eat food and play video games, we’re just like homies. I love his music, I love playing on his stuff, but for some reason when we hang out we just never get around to it. We’re so dumb, we just can’t stop laughing about dumb shit. I played on his last album Bodywash, we’ve made beats together but nothing’s been released.”
Tonight’s set is solo, but Kiefer is very used to playing with a band. “When you don’t have other people to play with, it makes it a little less interesting from that perspective. But in another way, what’s to be gained is you get to hear these beats like they are on the record – they’re really fat, I get to show off my drums and stuff.
When I was a kid coming up in the mid 2000s there was a sense that these other genres of music were coming in and killing jazz. There was a kind of scarcity mindset.
“When it’s the band, it’s completely different. The songs completely open up. I’m a jazz musician primarily, I come from playing in bands, so I like showing how a song is much more than the composed elements. You have chord changes, you have time fields on all these things that can imply so many other different avenues to go down. We do that and the songs come out completely different. It’s really fun, we just did a US tour and it was great.”
Is there room for improv in the live shows? “The entire time. There’s compositions, you play the written part of the piece, which might take a minute or two, and then we’ll go off for however long we want. Long solos, stretching out, doing things entirely different, changing the chords if we want, doing all kinds of different things. And then come back to the written part again, then go to the next song and do it again.”
The whole melting pot of the LA scene has meant beat makers and the jazz community cross over much more than back in the day. “I think jazz musicians are becoming more open minded to other things. I think for a while they weren’t interested in electronic music and hip hop. When I was a kid coming up in the mid 2000s there was a sense that these other genres of music were coming in and killing jazz. There was a kind of scarcity mindset that, ‘Oh, there’s not a lot of jazz musicians left, there’s not a big audience left, so every other genre of music is the enemy. We’re gonna do our thing’.
Like a preservation society? “Preservation is the perfect word. The type of attitude where they weren’t mixing and there was this effort to go backwards in time… which is the opposite of the principles of jazz. You’re supposed to do it new and different.
“I don’t think that’s what jazz is about. Jazz should be an abundance mindset where any type of music that’s relevant to the current culture should be included if possible, if it interests you. When jazz first started, the types of music that were popular in New Orleans were marching band music, minstrel music, ragtime, they still had spirituals, they had pop songs, they had early musical theatre ,they had classical music and jigs and quadrilles were really popular, this classical dance format – I could mention the blues too, fife and drum, riverboat music, all kinds of stuff.
“All that became part of the jazz tradition. How about the forties and fifties? You had rhythm and blues, you had Chicago blues, which brought about all these shuffle time feels that you heard from Art Blakey and everyone else. Then you get Horace Silver, who’s bringing the RnB thing into jazz. Gospel music is also becoming more well realised around that time. That’s always been a thing. I don’t know why, for some reason, in the last 20 years or so, this scarcity mindset creeps in, that we need to preserve this and all other genres are the enemy.
“I think what’s happened in the last five years – this is my theory, I don’t know how true it is, but I’m putting it out there so that people can look into it – I think the internet actually helps jazz musicians. The awareness has grown so large, whereas before if you’d never heard of jazz, and your only chance of hearing it was on a smooth jazz radio station – but who even listens to radio that much any more – or seeing it at a record store – but no one’s going to Tower Records anymore. If everyone was getting their stuff off iTunes, the odds were pretty slim that you’d find it.
“With social media and YouTube being so huge, people stumble on jazz who don’t even know they’d be interested, all the time, and go, ‘Oh wait, this is really dope’. Then there are bands that are less jazzy but have jazz elements that people really love too, people like Tom Misch, Vulfpeck – they’re not even jazzy but they do play black music.
“People are really tuning in, and I think that made jazz a little bigger as people started to realise there was a lot of opportunity in doing this kind of thing. I think everyone was kind of like, ‘We should be using electronic elements, we should be using hip hop elements’, I think that’s how they feed into each other.
“It’s growing but it’s not at the forefront yet. People who I think do it really well… Butcher Brown has one of the best new sounds. Braxton Cooke is great. This trumpet player, Marquis Hill, he’s great at putting hip hop elements in with what he does. Mark Guiliana, who we just heard last week, I opened for him in Zurich, he’s got his ‘beat music’, as he calls it, that he plays. It’s great, really wild.
“There’s a ton of people who are doing that now. In a less jazzy way, Swarvy does this really well too, almost sort of a jazz fusion type of thing, when he does do it. I’d still say the overwhelming majority of jazz musicians are still not quite comfortable diving into it.”
In this healthily innovative climate, what’s next for Kiefer? “I’m tying to finish another EP in the next month or two, or at least turn them in so they come out by the end of summer. It’ll be the second half of the project that Bridges is. Then I want to do an LP and have that come out as soon as I can, maybe the top of next year. I’m trying to do one and half more albums for the end of the year.”
And has Stones Throw opened more doors? “Yeah, definitely. I think it helps your brand because they’re associated with great records. They’re some of the best curators of records. Their founder’s literally one of the best crate diggers of all time, so if they like your music that’s a lot of street cred. It has put me in touch with a lot of really great people. Every time you go to the studio there’s someone else in there who’s super dope. There’s a lot to learn, being around there.”
Bridges is out now on Stones Throw.