Released this fall, the 14 gorgeous and serene piano meditations of Beholding may have sounded like a departure for Kafari, the Portland multi-instrumentalist and composer. His prior work in the drippy, hip hop-inflected jazz act Jaw Gems and 2016 solo record Knockturnes was the sort of music that you could flip on and instantly have a proper soundtrack for a great party — literally no one could dislike it.
But Kafari is up to something else here. Having recently split (amicably) with Jaw Gems, his new album is quietly one of the most rewarding releases in Maine music this year. On tracks like “Secret Part of You” and “Unbroken,” his piano melodies seem lifted from deep spiritual memories, while fragmentary pieces like “All or Nothing” offer more repeated-listening depth in their 90 seconds than many whole albums do.
Beholding is a seasonal record, Kafari says, designed for self and others to cope with and heal through the Maine winter. It’s also an album that came to him by an unusual path — as a result of playing (and teaching) the rhythm bones, one of the oldest instruments in the world, which became popularized in America in the 1800’s through blackface minstrel shows (a musical lineage which Kafari has taught). Kafari plays SPACE this Friday, November 30, with Portland folk act Lisa/Liza, who celebrates the release of new album Momentary Glance, on Orindal Records. (Making for an incredible show, the Portland acts play with Bad History Month, the whimsically cathartic folk project from Boston’s Sean Bean).
In January, Kafari tours Beholding through Europe, Japan, Mexico, and the U.S. We spoke with him by phone.
The Phoenix: How was the process of making this album different from the other music you’ve been making lately?
Kafari: This album was inspired by a piano that had such a unique and gorgeous sound. The very first time I played it (in April of 2017), I knew I wanted to create something with it. I’d never played a piano with such a rich, ethereal, heavenly sound. It brought an entirely different player and composer out of me. The biggest difference in the making of this album was prioritizing the intention over the results. I was working through a great deal of adversity while working on Beholding, and this album is where I went to try to hold and engage with my pain in a different, more hopeful way.
Did you set about to find that theme for yourself or to present it for others?
I was very focused on my own mind and world at the time. Creating Beholding was a coping mechanism for me and a key part of how I made it through the winter. I’m really sensitive [in the winter] to the absence of light and the shortened days, and my creative process with this album turned into a space where I could observe, accept, and pay close attention to everything hard I was feeling.
What kind of piano was it?
It’s a Yamaha upright piano and I was so blessed to have had access to it through a local area music school. I recorded the album over the course of six nights — four hours a night, just me, the piano, and a recording engineer in a nearby room reading a book and capturing everything. It felt like an extremely sacred space to me. Each night I thought about my intentions with the album, what I wanted to say, what kind of world I wanted to create for myself with these sounds.
Was it a one-time thing with this particular piano?
I definitely plan to continue sharing piano music, though I believe that not everything is for other people’s ears. It felt so good to be able to share this album with my people. I’m going on an international tour this winter to promote Beholding, so recording isn’t my first priority right now, but I cant wait to share some of the things that have been brewing lately.
Knockturnes followed a conceit where each song was built from samples from Bill Evans Trio compositions. Was there any particular musical or conceptual inspiration you had for this?
Beholding is the first piano-focused work I’ve created that contains a heavy rhythm bones influence. When I started playing the bones, it really changed my understanding of and approach to rhythm. It’s a very rhythmic album, and I found myself playing rhythms on the piano that came from all of my time spent studying the bones. I don’t know if I would have made something like this if it hadn’t been for that time spent developing that interest. When I finally embraced my fascination with the bones, I think I slowly began looking at the piano differently.
What are you going to focus on the tour?
I’m touring as a soloist to promote this album. I’m still determining whether I’ll play live beat remixes of the songs or perform the pieces live on piano. This tour is going to be an exploration of a lot of different sides of my music, including Knockturnes. I’m also planning to bring tons of bones with me so that I can teach my audiences how to play!
Beholding was released on September 21 — the Equinox — because, in a way, it feels like the beginning of winter to me. Of course, it’s the beginning of fall, but we’re entering “the seven-month stretch.” I wanted to offer something hopeful to people who might be feeling fear or have a tough time holding up in the winter. I know some people who love winter, but for me when the days start to get cold, I’m like, ‘Oh no, am I ready to do this again?’ I wanted to offer it at that time so that people could take it into the winter as a self-care tool and know that as long as we’re present with ourselves, everything will be okay.