After a decade of exploring the frigid depths of the sea hidden under Antarctic ice, Henry Kaiser is set to delve into an even more treacherous realm, the unpredictable currents of the human heart. The pioneering avant-garde guitarist, an intrepid musical seeker who has reached a broader audience in recent years through his collaborations with Academy Award-winning filmmaker Werner Herzog, performs solo on electric and acoustic guitar Friday at Duende in Oakland.
In a region known for adventurous lovers, Kaiser might well provide the ideal soundtrack for a Valentine's celebration. With some 250 recordings to his credit, including more than a dozen solo sessions, he's got a vast trove of sounds and concepts to draw upon. But judging from his beautifully trancy 2011 solo outing, Everything Forever, which he recorded "live" in the studio without overdubbing, he's well prepared for crafting sonic settings appropriate for the occasion.
"Playing solo is really cool, where it's 100 percent your responsibility," says Kaiser, 61, from his house in Santa Cruz, where he relocated from Oakland about two years ago. "You have a really direct connection with the audience. I like to be beautiful and weird at the same time, and see if you can take them somewhere with you."
A grandson of the storied Oakland industrialist Henry J. Kaiser, whose prolific Richmond shipyards played an essential role in the Allied victory in World War II (check out the Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historical Park for the story) and led to the creation of Kaiser Permanente, Kaiser lit out on his own, guided by his interests in scientific diving, film production, and experimental music.
In the early 1970s, Kaiser soaked up experimental jazz directly from the source at the great North Beach venue Keystone Korner, catching the astounding pianistic flights of Cecil Taylor and Miles Davis's roiling fusion bands at their most creative. He first made his mark as a player during a mid-70s period on the East Coast, where he connected with fellow guitar renegade Eugene Chadbourne, who had recently arrived in New York City after years of Canadian exile for refusing military induction.
When Kaiser moved back to the Bay Area in the late 1970s the experimental music scene was particularly vibrant. He and saxophonist Larry Ochs created Metalanguage Records to document the local scene and their international array of collaborators, including British guitar icons Fred Frith, Richard Thompson and Derek Bailey, Japanese trumpeter Toshinori Kondo, and Greek-American vocalist Diamanda Galás.
"Experimental music was quite a bit more popular then," Kaiser notes. "You could go play an avant garde show at Great American Music Hall and fill it up."
Kaiser might be best known for his work with Werner Herzog. They first met by chance after striking up a conversation while sitting next to each other on an airplane. Kaiser ended up working as music director on Herzog's 1997 documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly. Nearly a decade later, he produced the soundtrack for the harrowing documentary Grizzly Man, a project for which he hired his old bandmate Richard Thompson (the process of recording the soundtrack itself became the subject of a fascinating documentary by Erik Nelson, In the Edges).
Given Herzog's career-long preoccupation with individuals seized by grandiose, perilous and boundary-pushing obsessions, it's not surprising that he turned his attention to Kaiser and his work as an Antarctic research diver. Kaiser already had decades of research diving experience when he applied for the National Science Foundation's Antarctic Artists and Writers Program, which brought him to the South Pole with his guitar. He returned the next year as a diver, and when Herzog happened to see some of Kaiser's underwater video he was smitten.
Herzog used some of Kaiser's underwater footage in his 2005 sci-fi film The Wild Blue Yonder, and then made the trip to the South Pole himself where he filmed the scientists, divers and technicians who call Antarctica home for his 2007 documentary Encounters at the End of the World. The Academy Award-nominated film features an appropriately sparse and aqueous soundtrack by Kaiser and his long-time traveling compatriot multi-instrumentalist David Lindley (they recorded the other-worldly score at Fantasy Studios in Berkeley).
Lindley, who performs a solo show himself Wednesday at Yoshi's, wrote in an e-mail that Kaiser "is the most organized and enthusiastic producer I have ever worked with. It's always fun. He is also, without a doubt, the peak of the pyramid of avant-garde guitar players. He has a direct line to the deepest part of the creative mind where many musicians are afraid to go. He lives there."
Their friendship first blossomed musically back in 1991, when Kaiser and Lindley traveled to Madagascar and spent two weeks recording a verdant musical culture as rich and diverse as the island's endangered flora and fauna. The Shanachie label ended up releasing three popular anthologies of recordings, A World Out of Time, which introduced future world music stars like D'Gary and Tarika Sammy. A 1994 trip to Norway with Lindley resulted in two revelatory Shanachie volumes titled The Sweet Sunny North.
Kaiser and Lindley are talking about a new trip to Madagascar, where the environmental situation is even more dire, and he's looking at another collaboration with trumpeter/composer Wadada Leo Smith, his partner on three extraordinary Yo Miles! albums, exploring the early jazz/rock fusion of Miles Davis. And he's getting set to make his 11th trip to the Antarctic, extending his already unprecedented trove of under-ice video footage.
"It suits me, diving under ice, much more than diving without ice," Kaiser says. "I'm looking forward to going back to Antarctica. These days about half my work relates to being a diver and underwater videographer, but I still love doing music."
Henry Kaiser Valentine's Day Solo Guitar, Electric & Acoustic is Friday, February 14, 9:30pm at Duende in Oakland. For tickets and information, visit eventbrite.com.