Album Review: Maria Chávez & Jordi Wheeler, The Kitchen Sessions: 1-5

Sound artist Maria Chávez and multi-instrumentalist Jordi Wheeler recorded The Kitchen Sessions: 1-5 at New York’s iconic downtown venue, The Kitchen, during the 2020 wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. At that time, every venue was shut down across the city, but the Kitchen let artists come and use their space in a safe environment. Chávez took part in a two-day residency there, and brought Wheeler with her to improvise (the two have been playing together since 2015). Despite the constraints of that time, The Kitchen Sessions: 1-5, which was released in February 2021 on Cafe Oto’s Takuroku label, feels spacious and exploratory, made of a vast array of otherworldly textures.

The Kitchen Sessions: 1-5 moves in waves, from distant, haunted crunches to gentle, meditative melodies, inviting with every breath a closer, deeper listen. Those variations are compelling: Throughout the five improvised tracks, Chávez and Wheeler make use of what feels like every possible aspect of their tools to create wildly different palettes. The album features Chávez on her signature turntables, this time using a new setup of 4 Numark TTX turntables, 4 RAKE Double Needles, 8 needles total (invented by Randal Sanden Jr.), and 2 Xone DJ mixers, while Wheeler, a multi-instrumentalist whose work can be heard in groups like Amen Dunes, uses his standard selection of prepared piano, bass guitar, and electronics. Their music mixes the gritty, abstracted electronic sounds with pitched, melodic fragments in a way that at times sounds alien, and at other times ethereal.

These contrasts come to life in the surprising, often jolting transitions between the album’s tracks. Opener “Pluck Pluck” is made of quiet distances. There’s no sense of time or melody here, rather, it feels like it’s being driven by a constant sense of inquisitiveness, letting fragmented sound gently transform into wafting meditation. “Crossing Territory,” the second track, completely changes direction by opening with a bang of the piano, buzzsaw electronics, and haunted voices whose phrases are so spliced up only certain words pop out (suggested, space, where). Both tracks have a sci-fi quality to them, tinged by an fantastical flair, but they’re like opposite sides of a coin. Each encourages rumination, but they’re coming from different angles—one from gentleness, one from urgency.

The best moments on the record, though, are those that amplify sparseness into something that feels full, even if very little is really there. On “Five Thousand,” Chávez and Wheeler again seep into a world with no time, subtly shifting crunchy textures and electronic pitches until they reach a laid back groove between unconventional instruments; on “It Is Sunday Now,” one of the most unexpected tracks on the album, the two center a high-pitched, bright piano melody that rings over a slight crackle and growing hums. Here, the sound is vibrant yet gentle—the piano feels fragile as its sweet melody repeats. This moment lasts for just a couple of minutes before another explosion comes, crash-landing the music right back from the clouds and into a darker reality.

The Kitchen Sessions: 1-5’s sentences come in the form of deconstructed sounds, needing no words to create understanding. Chávez and Wheeler meticulously explore how abstract sound can tell its own story. Listening to the minutiae of their music reveals a whole range of emotions—melancholy, poignancy, hope, fear, joy, to name a few. Not much more is needed than sound itself to feel them.