The Celestial Squid

Henry Kaiser / Ray Russell

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The Celestial Squid Review

by Thom Jurek

The Celestial Squid pairs guitarist/improviser Henry Kaiser with one of his earliest idols, British guitarist, producer, arranger, and composer Ray Russell. Kaiser has a long history of recording with players he admires and has been influenced by, including John Abercrombie, Derek Bailey, David Lindley, and Fred Frith. Russell may be somewhat of a cipher to non-guitar heads. He released a series of influential, fiery free jazz-rock sets in the late '60s and early '70s: Dragon Hill, Rites & Rituals, Live at the ICA 1971: Retrospective, and Secret Asylum. Since then, he's cut many more records (including 2006's Goodbye Svengali and 2013's Now, More Than Ever), produced, arranged, and been a sideman on funk, folk, jazz dates, and even sound library albums. Though always active, he hasn't exclusively revisited the incendiary improvisational terrain of his earliest recordings until now. Kaiser assembled a killer set of players for this: Electric bassist Michael Manring; Damon Smith on upright; drummers Weasel Walter and William Winant; and saxophonists Steve Adams, Joshua Allen, Phillip Greenlief, and Aram Shelton. They recorded live at Fantasy Studios, armed with only basic head charts; the rest unfolded as the music dictated. There are seven long pieces here; the shortest is nearly nine minutes. Opener "guKTen LIMPo" dives right in. A knotty post-bop head is obliterated by the guitarists going head to head, while Manring with his trademark roiling funk acts as a bridge between them, the drum kit, and the squalling horns. Kaiser's "That Darn Squid" starts with everything happening simultaneously. He signals brief stops before the players pull out in several directions at once. Manring delivers a funky vamp that draws them back briefly, but after an arco bass interlude, the guitarists begin their own conversation. Solos and exchanged phrases and fractures spiral the tune as the horns add color and hints of melody. The first half of "The Enumeration [For Glenn Spearman]" is spacy and acoustic (Kaiser) but evolves into a lovely engagement of texture and shade before becoming sprawling free jazz with poignant electric work by Russell. "Disinterested Bystander" commences as a seeming post-bop blues, but angles dramatically with rockist chords, slippery breaks, and elongated spacious solos; it flirts with skronk in the middle but never actually goes there. The loosest piece here is the closer, "Construction #14." Each player is allowed to take the reins to shift the direction of the piece for a time. Not only is the guitar playing inventive and intuitive but the interaction between horns and the rhythm section is muscular and supportive. Given the nature of this proceeding, a large band playing live with scant arrangements, deep listening was required by all participants. The disaster quotient was high, but The Celestial Squid delivers the opposite in spades. It is a welcome return to the athletic fringes for Russell and one of the most inspired and striking of Kaiser's two-guitar encounters to date.

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