Henry the Great

Free jazz titan Henry Kaiser in Mill Valley this week for Coltrane showdown

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When he’s not exploring the Antarctic, Henry Kaiser plays guitar; and sometimes, he does both simultaneously. Photo courtesy Henry Kaiser

For most mortals, a single major accomplishment can be satisfying enough for one lifetime. Being an Academy Award–nominated producer, say; or a director-composer and cinematographer for multiple television series; or a university professor for nearly two decades; or a research diver with one of the highest numbers of dives under Antarctic sea ice; or creating your own record label still going strong in its fifth decade; or collaborating with an unprecedented array of artists across numerous genres from many different cultures—or, say, being one of the most outstanding guitarists of your generation—would be a laurel quite large enough to rest on.

Not so for Henry Kaiser, whose Promethean achievements encompass all of these and much else.

But let’s focus for the moment on Henry Kaiser, guitarist. Picking up the guitar at the comparatively late age of 20 and emerging as a cutting-edge improviser in the late seventies, Kaiser has continued to record an incomparably broad variety of music very much in keeping with his wide-ranging interests and influences. In a discography now north of 300 releases, one thing that becomes abundantly clear is how much this man loves to play, with an instantly recognizable, invigorating tone and sky (or is that sea?) diver’s fearlessness, and one who equally esteems the process of collaboration with many different kinds of artists.

That love of playing will be on full display during the weekend of April 20 as Kaiser performs in tributes to two major inspirational figures for him. First, on the exalted marijuana holiday itself, Kaiser will join longtime friends and collaborators Rova Saxophone Quartet among many others for “Fly! Fly! Fly! Fly! Fly! A Tribute to Cecil Taylor” at CounterPulse in San Francisco. And the following day finds him once more joining drummer John Hanrahan’s ongoing project, performing the classic suite by the late saxophone titan John Coltrane, A Love Supreme, at Sweetwater Music Hall in Mill Valley.

Reached at his home near the Santa Cruz mountains, Kaiser recalled the memorable first time he heard Coltrane.

“Some girl played A Love Supreme for me in her dorm room while we made out on her bed! So, it made a strong impression,” he says.

Hanrahan has been leading the Coltrane project for several years with the work’s original instrumentation and recently decided to take the work in an electric direction. One of the first people he contacted was Kaiser. He was in, but said to Hanrahan, “Let’s get some more electric players with us—let’s open it up and not do it all reverent.”

On April 21, Hanrahan and Kaiser will be joined at Sweetwater Music Hall by violinist Mads Tolling, keyboardist Scott Looney and bassist Murph Murphy. It’s one of several electric incarnations for this project, which has included such musicians as guitarist Steve Kimock as well as the legendary bassist for the iconic West Coast punk band the Minutemen, Mike Watt.

“Watt’s a super Coltrane freak and he was kinda terrified to do it,” Kaiser says. “And the big surprise about A Love Supreme is that it’s something that’s open. It’s a recipe and it makes different things every time. Like the Grateful Dead’s ‘Dark Star,’ it has a strong identity of its own that takes over and you don’t know what’s going to happen.”

That’s a telling reference both from Kaiser’s influences and his own discography, one that features several instances of him playing the Dead’s psychedelic anthem “Dark Star,” starting with a sidelong rendition on his 1988 album Those Who Know History Are Doomed To Repeat It, recorded for the Minutemen’s label SST Records. Kaiser has been effusive in his praise of the Dead over the years, extolling their pioneering blending of styles and their range of expression from the most familiar to the most avant of gardes, strikingly similar to Kaiser’s own musical journey.

His embrace of widely different musical approaches has resulted in a truly multicultural catalog, with Kaiser exploring music from Africa, India, Japan, Korea, Norway and elsewhere. Perhaps his most popular world music endeavor was his celebrated collaboration with fellow guitarist David Lindley and several musicians from Madagascar on the joyous two-volume A World Out Of Time.

“Lindley and I did not take any money for it,” Kaiser recalls. “All the money went to the Malagasy people. We set up a special publishing deal where they got 90 percent of the publishing and all the proceeds from it. That was sort of a protest against certain first-world artists who badly exploited third-world artists, including stealing their songs and their publishing.”

Alongside all this musical activity has been a parallel career as a research diver and educator. “I taught scientific diving at UC Berkeley since the mid-80s,” says Kaiser. “When our program went away in 2001, I became a diver in the U.S. Antarctic program and I’ve had 13 deployments. And I have the seventh-most dives in the program.”

This experience, in conjunction with his work in film and video, has served him well over the years, not least when he was nominated for an Academy Award as a producer while also serving as soundtrack artist and both land and underwater cinematographer for Encounters at the End of the World, one of several documentaries he has worked on for German director Werner Herzog.

“I met Werner sitting next to him on an airplane years ago,” says Kaiser. “I was a soundtrack advisor to Little Dieter Needs to Fly, I was a cameraman on The Wild Blue Yonder, I was a soundtrack producer on Grizzly Man and then I did the soundtrack and was cameraman on Encounters. And I was the producer, because nobody wanted to be in charge of Werner! So, I got the job and also got to do the soundtrack for it with Lindley. I was lucky.”

Kaiser’s accomplishments seemingly know no bounds in yet another ideal metaphor for his music. One irony, sharper as we approach April 20, is that this self-described “psychedelic” guitarist has famously never taken drugs. When asked what “psychedelic” means for him in this context, Kaiser replies, “It means what Salvador Dalí said: I don’t need drugs, I AM drugs!”

Kaiser expands on this thought in a follow-up email, writing, “I get the feeling that what my guitar has to say is psychedelic, rather than coming from psychedelics.

“When you were a preschool kid, did you–like me–lay in your dark bedroom at night and press on the lids of your eyes to generate phosphene patterns of internal light that danced in your head before going to sleep each night? Even though it may look like I’m smiling at the drummer or the audience, inside my mind, and without the addition of recreational chemicals, I’m drifting through glowing clouds of light; among coruscating fractal and geometric forms that shimmer in and out of existence. Rivers of light, like oceanic streams of phosphorescent plankton inflamed by the wakes of playful sea lions, dance in multi-colored time to the music before it happens; giving me my silent cues, like the clouds a glider pilot watches to catch updrafts.”

James Keepnews is a musician, writer and multimedia artist.
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