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Catching up with Kaiser

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Improvising guitarist Henry Kaiser is as prolific as his music is untethered and insubordinate.

by Derk Richardson
August 08, 2016

Full disclosure: Guitarist Henry Kaiser and I have been friends for more than three decades. He got me into SCUBA diving (about which he is even more passionate than playing guitar), and I became his colleague teaching free diving and SCUBA to underwater scientific researchers in Northern California. He introduced me to Shintaido, which I continue to practice. We’ve been personal confidants in trying times. I’ve borrowed guitars from him. I’ve helped him out with bits of writing, including the liner notes to his Wireforks album of guitar duets with Derek Bailey. And we’ve traded thoughts about music since we first met in an Oakland record store and bonded over our mutual admiration of Richard Thompson. That was before Henry took a cassette of his music to an RT gig, handed it to the former Fairport Convention guitarist, and said something like, “We should play together,” which eventually led to a pair of French Frith Kaiser Thompson albums (with John “Drumbo” French of Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band fame, and Fred Frith of Henry Cow and so much more).


Henry has probably turned me on to more music that I otherwise might not have heard than even the record shop owners and clerks who also became friends by virtue of my hanging out in their stores for hours, back in the days when you did that if you were a music freak. Just a week ago, Henry sent me a solo acoustic CD by an amazing new Malagasy guitarist, Chrysanto Zama, this coming 25 years after he and David Lindley made their pilgrimage to Madagascar and recorded a slew of musicians for their pioneering anthologies.

So it’s likely I’m predisposed toward positive appreciation of Henry’s avant-garde improvisations and cross-cultural experiments. But I’ve been predisposed toward free and outside music for more than four decades, since I first heard the Art Ensemble of Chicago and Cecil Taylor.

Still, keeping up with Kaiser could be a full-time job. He’s been on more than 270 albums since 1977 (about seven records per year). And it’s not just a matter of numbers: the sheer variety of sounds and collaborators is staggering. His 2015 releases included Megasonic Chapel, with percussionist William Winant, cellist Danielle DeGruttola, pianist Tania Chen, and haegum player Soo-Yeon Lyuh; Echoes for Sonny, a Sonny Sharrock homage with guitarists Robert Musso and Nick Didkovsky, bassist Jesse Krakow, and drummer Weasel Walter; At CNMAT, a 2007 electronic trio with Chris Muir on the Buchla 200E and the late David Wessel on SLABS; You Can’t Get There from Here, a 2010 studio session with cellist DeGrutolla, bassist Michael Manring, guqin (zither) player Wu Na, mridangam (barrel drum) and kanjira (frame drum) player Anantha R. Krishnan, and vocalist Gautam Tejas Ganeshan; The Celestial Squid, with guitarist Ray Russell, saxophonists Steve Adams, Joshua Allen, Phillip Greenlief, and Aram Shelton, bassists Manring and Damon Smith, and drummers Winant and Walter; and Garden of Memory, a box set of Kaiser’s live electric guitar solos from the annual walk-through concerts in Oakland’s Chapel of the Chimes columbarium.

Answering questions for, Kaiser explained part of the motivation for his prodigious output of recorded music: “It feels like we’re in end times for the kinds of music that I love the most and the possibility of any sort of hi-fi distribution to end users. I don’t think we’re going to be able to sell reasonable resolution audio releases for much longer.”

Sometimes I don’t know how Henry keeps up with Kaiser. His wife, the artist Brandy Gale, in addition to doing her own work, has to stay apace because she does the art direction—paintings, photography, design—for the covers of Henry’s CDs. In the first half of 2016, those have included Nazca Lines (22 short improvisations on solo acoustic guitar); Xenosynchronicity II (improvised guitar duets with Killick Hinds); Jazz Free: A Connective Improvisation, with guitarists Nels Cline and Jim Thomas, bassist Allen Whitman, and drummer Walter; Nearly Extinct, an exploration of various “out of style” improvisation methods with trombonist Steve Parker, bassist Damon Smith, and drummer Chris Cogburn; and The Starbreak Splatterlight, a 2010 session with pianist/guitarist Paul Plimley, and drummers Lukas Ligeti and Walter.

I shouldn’t be surprised by anything Kaiser does anymore. When he sets his mind to something, he usually makes it happen. I stood by slack-jawed as he brought into being the supergroup French Frith Kaiser Thompson. I saw his pipe dream of going with guitarist David Lindley to Madagascar and Norway and recording with musicians there become documented realities. I watched him put together the Yo Miles! band with trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith to extrapolate from the funkiest, most African electric music of Miles Davis. For the Prepared Guitar blog he compiled a list of the heroes he’s been able work with. It included Sonny Sharrock, Jerry Garcia, Derek Bailey, Elliot Ingber, Richard Thompson, Cecil Taylor, Freddie Roulette, Barry Melton, Phil Lesh, Terry Riley, Drumbo, John Stevens, Evan Parker, Zakir Hussain, Amos Garrett, John Abercrombie, Fred Frith, Keith Rowe, Eugene Chadbourne, Merl Saunders, Harvey Mandel, Steve Lacy, Hans Reichel, and Tisziji Muñoz, and didn’t end there. He has also made music with artists from Korea, Vietnam, Zimbabwe, Japan, China, and India, and he’s collaborated with director Werner Herzog on the films Grizzly Man, The Wild Blue Yonder, Little Dieter Needs to Fly, and Encounters at the End of the World.

And yet, Henry has caught me off-guard again with his brand-new release, Talk to Me About Invisible People, five live improvisations, including the 54-minute putative title track, “Tell Me About Invisible People,” played on synthesizers, turntables, electric and acoustic guitars, fretless bass, fretted bass, and lap steel guitar. The multi-instrumental quartet is comprised of Kaiser, Kobe Dupree, Alexei Pliousnine, and Jack Thompson, Richard Thompson’s son. It’s dreamy, spacy, atmospheric, and science fiction-y.

The best description of it would be akin to how Henry described the experience of playing music in the aforementioned interview with Prepared Guitar: “Inside my mind, and without the addition of recreational chemicals, I’m drifting thorough 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 time to the music before it happens; giving me my silent cues, like the clouds a glider pilot watches to catch updrafts. It’s pretty much like I have a Jordan Belson movie running inside my head all the time, but it’s easiest to look at when I’m playing music and on the edge of some kind of natural trance state.”

Trance on, Mr. Kaiser.

Category: commentary

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Posted by Killick Hinds on
Wonderful article.
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