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How Kiefer Stopped Being a Jazz Snob and Started Making Boundary-Breaking Music From the Heart

Photo by Eric Coleman

About halfway through our conversation, Kiefer Shackelford launches into one of his favorite jokes: “Can you imagine Duke Ellington teaching a piano lesson and going, Now remember, son, make sure they always think what you’re doing is jazz? That’s got to be the most idiotic thing I’ve heard, and yet we’re so stuck in that.”

A UCLA-trained pianist who records under his first name, Kiefer’s light jabs at jazz snobs are in-bounds, since he admits that was once his mindset. But after seeing MNDSGN at the late-lamented L.A. showcase The Low End Theory in 2015, he dived headlong into the city’s bohemian, genre-fusing scene as a producer, earning co-productions with the likes of Kaytranada and Anderson .Paak.

While last year’s debut, Kickinit Alone, was an instrumental travelogue through the wake of a break-up, HappySad (released Friday on Stones Throw Records) takes more of an overview of an artist trying to balance a scale of ambition and anxiety. Beneath the accessible speckling of MPC-inspired rhythms, cool jazz noodling, and molasses-slow G-funk that play under the soft-white vinyl hiss of the record, one might not catch the looming uncertainty– or true reverence for American composers–Kiefer demonstrates on each track. HappySad’s hip-hop readymades establish his foothold in Stones Throw’s unsinkable roster of beatmakers, upholding a jazz heritage while envisioning its boundary-less future.

“Your job as a musician is not to be the smartest, most esoteric, eccentric or artistically superior person out there,” Shackelford said. “You can develop those cool harmonies and rhythms, but your job first and foremost should be for the purpose of encouraging people and making their lives better.”

Ahead of his New York debut performance at Elsewhere on Friday, Kiefer caught up with B+B to chat about HappySad, the link between education and jazz, and the freeing feeling of “abandoning” art.

BB_Q(1)Kickinit Alone doesn’t start in the same place it ends emotionally; it takes listeners from a dejected mood to a optimistic one. Did you go into HappySad thinking it would have a similar emotional arc?

BB_A(1)Definitely. I think at a certain point I realized that although writing about sadness is particularly potent, I wasn’t as emotionally distraught as I was when recording the previous record. This one’s more of a hodgepodge, but it’s consistent in that I’m writing with the same mindset all the time. It’s emotional journaling, and [HappySad] is my journal for 2017. A lot of songs are about my anxiety, being ambitious and having dreams and trying to follow them, romantic feelings. A lot of songs are about ego and trying to control that. I think it’s about an emotionally complex person who’s … just a got a dream [laughs] and just trying to make it work and balance my emotional life with my musical aspirations.

It seems like these records are a pretty distinct snapshot of where you are as you make them. Was that BB_Q(1)always a natural path for you? Many artists try to shy away from wanting people to think of their music as diaristic.

BB_A(1)It’s definitely natural for me. I’ve been playing piano since I was very little and learning how to improvise from day one. Being an improviser offers you the chance to write for the moment; being able to make music extemporaneously allows for me to put down whatever I’m feeling in that instant. Usually every single song I do [starts by] sitting down at the piano for 60 seconds or so, and then I think about the most emotionally captivating thing in my life at the time. Over the next 20, 30 minutes I’ll have the basic idea finished and I’ll put it away.


When do you know when the recording is complete?

BB_A(1)It’s kind of a cop-out answer, but it’s an artistic decision when to stop. I’m of the belief that no art is finished. Michelangelo once said, “All art is abandoned.” At some point you just have to stop and be content with it not being done. Even Kanye West with The Life of Pablo, he’s still updating that shit and re-uploading it to Spotify. I just read yesterday that Bob Dylan is always rewriting his greatest songs that a lot of people have deemed as “perfect.” But we have such a reference for musicians, sometimes, that we forget that songs are not necessarily finished with they’re recorded.

We try to get as close to perfection as you can within reason, but for me it’s more about being real with myself. I find that a feeling only visits you for so long, and as an improviser I’m trying to channel those constantly changing emotions very efficiently. If you have aspects of your technique that are blocking you from getting that out, that’s something that you need to work on.


What aspect of your technique do you think you’ve spent the most time working to un-block?

BB_A(1)I think the biggest one was mixing and understanding how to use software. The laptop is quite literally an instrument, a tool for creative expression, and learning how to see my computer as a part of my process as opposed to just the piano has been an essential part of this new art form I’ve been trying to develop.

BB_Q(1)Earlier this week, L.A.’s influential music event series/showcase Low End Theory announced it would be ending. Did you have any experiences there?

BB_A(1)That was a huge fork in the road for me, actually. In August 2013, Mndsgn played, and he became one of the most irreplaceable presences in my musical career, because had it not been for watching him perform and really loving what I’ve heard, I would have never considered this as a career path. I used to be one of those jazz snobs who only wanted to play jazz, but then I saw this jazz-influenced type of thing that I suddenly became very interested in, and that was all at Theory.


You’ve spoken before about the importance for jazz musicians not to get in this mindset of I only can play jazz music. What’s some stuff that you’ve been listening to that helps get you out of that bubble?

BB_A(1)I love a lot of my contemporaries. I love Kaytranada, Knxwledge, Anderson .Paak, Kendrick. I listen to a lot of Brazilian music, but that’s still kind of jazz. I think especially in this day and age, jazz musicians dedicate ourselves to tradition, we think it’s really important. But the irony is we’re ignoring a huge part of the tradition, which is that a lot of the great jazz musicians throughout history were not playing [what we call] “jazz” at the time. Think about Duke Ellington; he called his music “American music.” Miles Davis called his “social music.” Same goes for John Coltrane. Even Robert Glasper is doing things he doesn’t even consider jazz all the time.

BB_Q(1)Outside of producing/performing, you’re also a piano teacher. Who was one of those older musicians that affected your approach to music?

BB_A(1)I think a favorite person that I have taken the most influence from in recent years was my teacher, Abraham Laboriel, who’s played bass on Stevie Wonder records, Quincy Jones records, Michael Jackson records, everything. Something that he reminded me to do all the time is most fundamental thing of all: play from your heart. Don’t ever touch your instrument if you’re not doing that. Even if you play one note, if you put your heart into it, your stresses and your self judging, any insecurities start to go away. You’re less concerned with “Are people judging me? Am I doing this the right way? Oh man, I sound terrible.” Those thoughts kind of subside.

“HappySad” is out now on Stones Throw Records. Kiefer’s record release show at The Del Monte in Los Angeles on July 12.

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Musician Rafiq Bhatia On Throwing Out the Manual to Make His New Album, Breaking English

(Photo by Seth Hale)

For the past five years, Rafiq Bhatia has been pushing out from the style and instrument that has made him a highly coveted collaborator.

A virtuoso guitarist that quickly earned a pedigree in the jazz world, Bhatia began to feel weighted down by the patterns he’d been adhering to on his debut album Yes It Will and EP Strata. His pair of 2012 releases gestured at times towards the warped soundscaping that define his newest album Breaking English, but was orchestrated within ensemble-minded compositions familiar to jazz listeners.

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Throwback Bar-Venue Coney Island Baby Fights ‘Vegan Socks and Gluten-Free Toilet Bowls’

photo by Ilaria Conte

Coney Island Baby soft-opened on Thursday with performances by a host of downtown music staples: Murphy’s Law, Craig Finn of the Hold Steady, and HR of Bad Brains. One of the long-gestating bar-venue’s owners, Jesse Malin, a veteran of the Manhattan hardcore punk scene and owner of nearby Niagara and Bowery Electric, also performed with his band. For this new venue in the former home of HiFi Bar, Malin has teamed with Laura McCarthy, owner of the legendary venue Brownies (which also occupied the space, from 1987 to 2002) and Velvet Elk Records co-founder Don DiLego, who will run the label and curate special live recordings from the venue.

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Clint Michigan On Making His New Album With Members of The Moldy Peaches and Julie Ruin

Clint Michigan. Photo by Allison Michael Orenstein

Clint Asay has a chipper demeanor, as you’d expect from a former cocktail waiter at Sidewalk Cafe and bartender at Metropolitan. But he also records heart-heavy, semi-biographical folk as Clint Michigan, which is why I recently found him telling me, with a self-deprecating laugh, “I don’t want anyone to feel sorry for me.”

Centuries, Clint Michigan’s second album for Kiam Records and first proper record in nine years, revisits a very specific segment of Asay’s history, when a struggle to stay clean stalled his creativity. The album’s very existence is a victory against those roadblocks, even if he doesn’t believe they’re entirely behind him: he cites his unwavering perfectionism in the studio, minor bouts of stage fright and, at one point, questions the idea of calling himself a musician, believing he lacks some virtuoso quality all artists must possess. But Centuries fashions a success for itself on two of Asay’s foundational strengths as a songmaker: the clarity of his bleak lyrical reveries and his arrangement of collaborators, which includes members of Julie Ruin and The Moldy Peaches.

Ahead of his album release show at Union Pool on April 29, Asay spoke to Bedford + Bowery about his roots in comedy music, his friendship with Quelle Chris, and walking the fine line between writing honest songs and self-obsession.

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Brooklyn Stands Against ‘Punish a Muslim Day’

(Photo via Eric Adams on Twitter)

Interfaith leaders and city officials gathered in Brooklyn’s “Little Pakistan” yesterday to decry a flier promoting April 3rd as “Punish a Muslim Day.” With City Council member Jumaane Williams calling the document “one of the most dangerous pieces of paper I’ve seen in a very long time,” Borough president Eric L. Adams pledged to join members of the NYPD on an information offensive and special patrol on Tuesday.

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