Henry Kaiser

Sketches of Miles with Henry Kaiser

First Appeared in The Music Box, July 2004, Volume 11, #7

Written by John Metzger


For most ensembles, jazz fusion is a virtual minefield to traverse, and although many artists have tried to match the magic inherent in Miles Davisí sonic landscapes ó either by seeking to pave their own path or by attempting to pay reverent tribute ó few have been able to succeed fully at either capturing its essence or creating something new and equally worthy. Then again, most people arenít Henry Kaiser, a well-respected ethno-musicologist, an eminently talented composer, and a stylishly enterprising improvisational guitarist, who since the early í90s wanted to turn his attention to Davisí pioneering explorations. It wasnít until he recruited his long-time friend and trumpet player Wadada Leo Smith, however, that his dream came to fruition.

In 1998, Kaiser and Smith met the challenge head-on and concocted the much-heralded 2-disc, 160-minute extravaganza Yo Miles!. Their latest effort Yo Miles! Sky Garden is another lengthy affair that seamlessly situates a handful of original creations next to intensely inventive re-imaginations of Davisí material. A third set titled Yo Miles! Up River is scheduled for release in January 2005.

Kaiser first discovered Davisí music in college when he stumbled into the strange machinations of Bitches Brew and A Tribute to Jack Johnson, but the albums that had the biggest impact upon him were the concert performances showcased on Pangaea and Agharta. Said Kaiser via telephone from his Bay-area studio, "He had really created a new kind of music that was well-suited to improvisation ó better suited than previous jazz and better suited than the type of electric jazz he had done before that. It was just very complex and expressionistic music. I think his trumpet playing got better and better, too, and it featured more interesting ideas."

"[Davis] really disregarded tunes in the conventional sense," Kaiser explained. "He used thematic key to cue the musicians to go to a particular area. [Much like the Grateful Deadís] Dark Star is a door that you can go through, he had these areas ó there is one called Ife; thereís Calypso Frelimo; thereís a number of different ones ó and they would change over the years. He would find new things and new ways to combine them. So, thereís thematic cue; thereís harmonic climate; and thereís usually a particular bass ostinato pattern. It can go almost anywhere from there."

"After we recorded the [first] album, we played at the Fillmore, and everything came out completely different, which is the whole point of Milesí stuff ó it comes out really different every time," he said. "Itís funny. First, you donít really know what is going to happen, and second, itís no effort to play because all of the people just move along like theyíre riding an endless wave in the ocean. Itís a very cool feeling to be in that band on stage."

In choosing their ensemble, Kaiser and Smith selected musicians with whom they had a rapport, looking at both who was available as well as with whom it would be fun to perform. The ensemble did change somewhat after the initial Yo Miles! collection, but its goal has remained the same: to create something new from the templates that Davis left behind. Beginning with an in-depth examination of the pieces they would eventually re-construct, Kaiser and Smith developed an understanding as to how he operated in comparison with other fusion artists like Chick Corea, John McLaughlin, and Jack DeJohnette. Said Kaiser, "[Most fusion] is more European-icized. Itís neater and more composed. We tried to do it that open way, and we tried to figure out just what Miles was doing. So, I think we sort of broke the code of the method, of the grammar. I donít think anyone else has really bothered to do that."

In scrutinizing Davisí compositions, Kaiser and Smith made a few discoveries, such as the chord progression that appears in Go Ahead John. "There is a slow blues section in the middle of it," explained Kaiser. "Itís like a really strange 38-bar ó it might be 42-bar ó blues progression, and nobody has ever even noticed that it has those chords, except us in trying to figure out what was going on. We looked at all those tunes really carefully."

"Miles obviously had put the chord progression in front of everybody in the studio because they are all playing it. But itís so long that itís very hard to tell what it is," he continued.

Naturally, as the Yo Miles! collective took shape, it began to explore new material as well, most of which has been credited to Smith. While none of it necessarily grew out of Davisí compositions, it was a product of the ensembleís performing together over a period of time, and the methodology behind the compositions was quite similar. In essence, Smith had several concepts he wanted to explore just as Kaiser wanted to experiment within the context of Davisí framework, and in each case, they utilized the control of information to achieve their goals. Said Kaiser, "I [more often] would be the bandleader with Miles Davisí material, and Wadada [Leo Smith] would be the bandleader with his material. Sometimes you give people precise information, and sometimes you give people really minimal information. Sometimes you give two sets of people different information and donít let them talk. You get interesting results. Like you can tell two people to do things in a different key, and something interesting happens. Other than that, we just played. Itís very, very improvised."

Unfortunately, because of the myriad of performers involved the project, the costs are prohibitive for taking the ensemble on the road, although Kaiser hasnít ruled out a few Bay-area appearances in the coming months. After three double-disc sets exploring the world of Miles Davis, however, there just isnít much more to be said.

Still, Kaiser has continued working at a frenetic pace ó over the course of his career, heís contributed to more than 140 albums ó though he humbly states that heís trying not to do too many things this year. Yet, he has several projects in various stages of completion. Thereís another solo guitar record as well as an improvised music tribute to John Stephens, both of which are ready for release. With former Hampton Grease Band guitarist Glenn Phillips, heís planning to record a tribute to Willie Dixon. He also is getting ready to join Elliott Sharpís Terraplane for a set of eclectic blues. On top of that, he will head back to Antarctica this Fall as a staff diver in the U.S. Antarctic program where he will put the finishing touches on an instrumental collection that fuses acoustic and electric guitar improvisations with the natural sounds of the continentís environment.

As for the future, Kaiser appears equally excited about a variety of other projects. Heís interested in traveling to the Comoros Islands near Madagascar to record an album of Sufi Muslim songs written by Richard Thompson, and heíd like to form a quartet with pianist Marilyn Crispell, Grateful Dead bass player Phil Lesh, and a yet-to-be-determined drummer in order to create material in the spirit of Cecil Taylor.

"I had a perverse idea that I wish we could do, but I donít see how anybody would pay us to do it. Maybe somebody will someday," he sighs. "Ready? Yo Marley. Bob Marley tunes done in the í70s Miles Davis style."

Strange? Perhaps. But if anyone could pull it off, it would be Henry Kaiser.

Yo Miles! Sky Garden is available from Barnes & Noble.
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Copyright © 2004 The Music Box