09 June 2010


Many musicians' life stories have two sides to them. In Bruce Kaphan's case, it might be closer to three or even four sides. While he has walked some "traditional" paths, similar to where many have trod (to the point of being cliché) he has also taken some side-trips and explored unusual paths, some which mark him as a pioneer, starting with, of course, his instrument of choice—the pedal steel guitar, an instrument so closely associated with country music that it may seem heretical to even consider it aligned with other genres. But, let's take a step back.

If you've been paying attention to contemporary instrumental music these days, you're getting used to seeing (or hearing) artists take their instruments and do unusual things with them, e.g. Jeff Pearce's Chapman Stick, Tom Heasley's tuba, Caryn Lin's electric violin, and a few others. Many of these folks get lumped into the cyclonic mishmash that ends up being labeled "ambient," or "new age music." With his album Slider–Ambient Excursions for Pedal Steel Guitar (Hearts of Space, 2000) Kaphan threw his musician's hat into this ring. The music on Slider unveiled a unique new personality for the pedal steel guitar, or as Kaphan states "…there are a few fringe [pedal steel] players such as myself who've taken it [the instrument] where I'm sure some of the 'purists' might assume 'it don't belong.'

In response to why he has chosen to pursue this singular musical vision, Kaphan relays his early love for the improvisatory ground-breaking fusion music which came out of the San Francisco scene, played by groups such as the Grateful Dead and Quicksilver Messenger Service, as well as the emergence at that same time of Indian music (helped along by the Beatles' bringing it to the mainstream public's attention). Finally, it was the instrument's specific qualities themselves, as Kaphan describes "…a fluid sound [which] provides an extremely rich palette for exploring all sorts of musical possibilities."

Just how did Bruce Kaphan, the exploratory pedal steel player, arrive at Hybrid, his second solo recording? Traveling a long, arduous, single-mindedly dedicated, and undeterred-despite-obstacles path, it would seem. Sure, along the way he had the usual flirtations with bands as a teenager, but  Kaphan actually penetrated the music business more as a studio technician/engineer/producer and sideman (on, of course, the pedal steel guitar) than trying to be a "big name star" right out of the blocks. Well, it wasn't just happenstance as it turns out, but also his steely determination to make a legitimate living in the music business, whatever it took. This certainly flies in the face of many "ambient" musicians who pursue music more as a non-profitable hobby (while also ascribing the typical "starving artist" label to themselves). Kaphan was having none of that. Instead, he knuckled under and just kept plugging away (to the tune of more than 169 albums in his discography on which he either played or had in hand in production or engineering). As he states matter of factly "…the majority of my career path has been defined by the need to work to survive. I've done the work that came my way."

Bruce Kaphan's musical life story may contain some fairly typical components (if one has read many artist bios), e.g. took piano lessons, learned to play guitar, dabbled in pop/rock bands, proclaimed that discovering the Beatles "…changed my whole universe." However, upon close inspection, one observes that at many points in his life, he chose an alternate path. Perhaps the biggest deviation was his resolve to become a kick-ass-and-take-names pedal steel guitarist, one who has played with or recorded for some impressive names: REM, Jewel, The Black Crowes, David Byrne, Love and Rockets, and no less a genius than John Lee Hooker, not to mention his membership in the band American Music Club, about which Jason Ankeny (on allmusic.com) writes "…lauded San Francisco-based band [which] over the course of nine acclaimed albums…tied together the disparate strands of the American musical fabric — rock, folk, country, punk, even lounge schmaltz — into a remarkably distinct and riveting whole, creating a brilliant and cohesive body of work dappled by moments of haunting beauty and impenetrable darkness."

For those who've heard Slider, Hybrid will prove to be an ear-opening and mind-expanding experience as Kaphan is joined by numerous other musicians, including Jake Shimabukuro, David Immerglück, Matt Brubeck, Real Vocal String Quartet, Karl Perazzo, Salar Nader and others (whereas Slider featured one guest player on one track only) and the assembled musicians traverse a broad landscape of musical styles and moods (witness the presence of such disparate instruments as ukulele, tabla, cello, congas, piano, and fretless bass, not to mention Kaphan's own keyboards, guitar and pedal steel).

"My greatest ambition for my listeners is to be carried away by my music," Kaphan reveals. "Music has this incredible potential for connecting us with our inner selves…I feel very rewarded when I know I've helped someone enhance and enrich their inner life."

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