Henry Kaiser and Ray Russell – The Celestial Squid [TrackList follows] – Cuneiform, Rune 403, 79:43 [2/3/15] ****:
(Henry Kaiser – guitar, co-mixer, producer; Ray Russell – guitar; Steve Adams, Joshua Allen, Phillip Greenlief, Aram Shelton – saxophone; Michael Manring – electric bass; Damon Smith – acoustic double bass; Weasel Walter & William Winant – drums)
What do superspy James Bond and diving in Antarctic waters have in common? What is the link between a studio musician, with credits which range from Lulu to Marvin Gaye, and a guitarist whose résumé includes working with former Grateful Dead members, multiple Asian musical collaborations, and a Gil Evans tribute? All of that cross-mingling comes together on the nearly 80-minute, free-form improvisational release, The Celestial Squid, featuring the dual (and sometimes dueling) electric guitars of Bay Area artist Henry Kaiser and British guitarist Ray Russell. Kaiser is notable for his experimental projects usually outside of traditional jazz (one of his mentors is free-improv guitarist Derek Bailey; and Kaiser has teamed up with likeminded Fred Frith); but he’s also a scientific diver who has made ten deployments to Antarctica; and Kaiser’s non-music endeavors include film and television production and directing. Russell is most celebrated for his late 1960s-early 1970s jazz fusion LPs, but his most famous performances are several 1960s-era John Barry soundtracks for the James Bond movie series (so, you’ve heard Russell’s guitar, you probably just didn’t realize it). How did an avowed outsider musician hook up with the guy who did James Bond music? Well, it turns out Kaiser is a fan of Russell’s extreme and explorative venture, Live at the ICA: June 11th 1971. Kaiser contacted Russell, whom he did not know, and simply asked him if he would like to do an equivalent, no-holds-barred excursion. Russell readily agreed.
The result is The Celestial Squid: seven lengthy tracks (the shortest is just under nine minutes; the longest is over 15 minutes), with a large group which careens and adjusts unerringly with Kaiser and Russell’s in-the-moment material. Alongside the two guitarists is a four-sax horn section (Steve Adams, Joshua Allen, Phillip Greenlief, Aram Shelton); two bassists: Michael Manring (who has previously been involved in Kaiser’s Miles Davis tribute band, Yo Miles!) on electric bass, and Damon Smith on acoustic double bass; and two drummers: Weasel Walter and William Winant (his credits include Joan Jeanrenaud and John Zorn) who play simultaneously. This is an unusual set-up, but this is unusual music. The ten-man ensemble recorded live at Fantasy Studios, with basic head charts, but otherwise the music evolved organically and from initial inspiration. What you hear is what transpired: everything is first or second takes.
The group jumps into the maelstrom with Adams’ nine-minute opener “guKTen LIMPo.” A post-bop head is quickly demolished as Kaiser and Russell meet fearlessly, with Kaiser (on the right channel), using digital pedal effects to augment his six-string attack, and Russell (on the left channel) maintaining a similar assault, without digital effects. The doubled basses and drums and quadrupled horns are down the middle. The music is potent, noisy, and dissonant, yet Manring layers a neo-funk foundation which provides a coiled base. “guKTen LIMPo” isn’t all full-on blitz, though. Various band members step in, step out, and keep things focused but intense. Kaiser/Russell and company go into jazz-skronk territory on Kaiser’s 13-minute “That Darn Squid,” which essentially is the album’s title track. Again, Manring supplies a funk-festooned bass line which acts as an anchor, as the others stretch into abstractions. There is interesting interplay between guitars and horns, as they sometimes share unison harmonic lines; there are trim moments of beauty amid the shredding discordance; and there are rationed hints of melody (predominantly from the horns). Kaiser is mainly at the fore, although Russell adds echo-enriched instances.
This album isn’t all blaze and storm. Russell’s nine-minute “In Another Life” employs somber, almost lamenting horns, and is more meditative than other pieces. Individual saxes take center stage (the liner notes unfortunately don’t indicate who does the solos, which is a shame); Russell slips in atmospheric sounds while Kaiser edges closer to rock music inclinations; and Manring offers a solo atop Kaiser’s ambient effects. This is like music from extraterrestrial sources, akin to the alien squid on the CD cover. Kaiser switches to acoustic guitar for Adams’ free-improv vehicle, the 13-minute “The Enumeration,” a tribute to the late free jazz/experimental tenor saxophonist Glenn Spearman (he passed away in 1998), a Bay Area player who inspired many artists. After a relatively genteel but futuristic first half, Kaiser returns to electric guitar and the improvisation progresses into wound-up free jazz kindled by forceful, rock-tinged movements. Near the close, everyone stops, Smith solos with lovely poise, and the tune concludes as it began, with acoustic brilliance. The CD ends with the lengthiest and loosest track, Allen’s “Construction #14.” Each performer has room to hurdle to the front line, shifting the tune’s course. The guitars are advanced and instinctual, and somehow they sustain an interaction with the massed horns and four-person rhythm section. Due to the almost-uninterrupted commotion and clamor, the two drums and two basses are persistently authoritative, as well as supportive, throughout this auditory cyclone. The Cuneiform label is known for issuing adventurous, boundary-breaching projects, and Henry Kaiser and Ray Russell’s The Celestial Squid certainly fits that bill. If you want a preview, you should view a 13-minute promo video, which comprises in-the-studio performances during the band’s one-day stay at the Fantasy Records recording facility. There is also footage from the 1968 Japanese monster movie, Gamera vs Viras, which apparently was the stimulation for the album title and artwork. The CD also includes erudite liner notes from guitarist/producer Jim O’Rourke and guitarist/composer Alan Licht, who help connect the dots between Russell and Kaiser.
TrackList: guKTen LIMPo; In Another Life; That Darn Squid; The Enumeration; Victims; Disinterested Bystander; Construction #14