Friday, January 06, 2006

Steve Kimock: Life Beyond Zero

As a poet, I know I engage the world through language, much as a sculptor might engage it in terms of mass and form, but I've always had an ear for music. There were no musicians in my family as I was growing up, though my father had been a singer in men's choral groups in his youth, and clearly loved music; he would unwind when he came home from the office by listening to records in the living room, leaning back on the couch, his eyes closed. My sister and I both had our obligatory music lessons (I still have my clarinet stuck away in a closet somewhere), but music didn't stick for me as a way I could articulate my take on the world, my sense of it.

Still, one of the dimensions of poetry is, in fact, its music, the sound of the poem.
Melopoeia, Ezra Pound called it, borrowing from the Greek, "wherein the words are charged, over and above their plain meaning, with some musical property, which directs the bearing or trend of that meaning." Basil Bunting, the great Northumbrian poet who died in 1985, said it this way in a conversation with Jonathan Williams in 1976: "I believe that the fundamental thing in poetry is the sound, so that, whatever the meaning may be, whatever your ultimate intention in that direction might be, if you haven't got the sound right, it isn't a poem. And if you have got it right, it'll get across, even to people who don't understand it." Perhaps it's that dimension of my own approach to the world that's given me an open ear, and a deeper than usual commitment to making music of almost all kinds a real part of my life.

And, then, perhaps it also was the entheogens (more familiar still as “psychedelics”), those sometimes harrowing keys to the doors of perception. Certainly they opened my ears anew in the late sixties and early seventies, and let me hear dimensions of music I'd not appreciated before – the spiritual, sacramental quest that can sometimes happen when musicians are listening deeply to one another, finding a common voyage. I've heard this
it, this groove, in the performance of classical music – a really good string quartet, say, can certainly find it – but have found it more often in musical idioms that are more improvisational, like jazz and, well, "electric music for the mind and body", as Country Joe McDonald used to call it, good old rock-and-roll. When improvisational musicians take their voyage, they take us with them; aware of their roles as navigators, they set out to discover new territory in their playing, and bring themselves and us all somehow back to port, transformed by the adventure.

It was their commitment to such musical discovery that made me a fan of the Grateful Dead in the early 1970s. It's cool these days, of course, to disparage the Dead, their music, and particularly their "scene", and, in truth, as their audience grew from a few thousand to a few million, as guitarist Jerry Garcia fell more and more into the power of his own druggish devils, there were excesses, and there were losses. But whatever might be said about the later history of the band (on a good night, they were, to my ears, still very, very good, right till the end – but there were fewer good nights), the first fifteen years or so of their run produced some amazing shows, concerts after which you knew for a certainty that something indefinable had changed in your understanding of the world, and of yourself as you stood in it – in, perhaps, the very balance of the Cosmos – and it had changed, against all odds, for the better.

When I set out to the Black Mountain Music Festival in the fall of 1997, it'd been over two years since Jerry Garcia had died in his sleep, and I'd become reconciled to the likelihood that his death had meant the end of my experience of music as a soul-making venture. Phish, as good as I could hear they were, didn't have
it for me. The jazz greats who were still living, still doing vital work, didn't come to Appalachia very often, and that's where I lived. I was fifty-two, had been married, was then separated, a father twice over, and had long ago given up tripping at concerts I was able to attend. The festival that fall featured Bruce Hornsby, Peter Rowan and Tony Rice, and I enjoyed their various approaches to music; Bruce, after all, had played keys with the Dead during one of their good late periods. So, as I sat on my tarp on the wet ground beneath the cloudy October sky waiting for the scheduled performance by Rowan and Rice, I was expecting a show I'd enjoy. The intermittent rain had thrown things off schedule at the outdoor stage, though, and finally someone with the festival came on to say that Rowan and Rice would be performing on the stage in the gym instead, and another group, Zero, would be up soon on the outdoor stage. Zero? I'd never heard of them. Hmm. Oh, well. I gathered my backpack and tarp, bade goodbye to the folks in near proximity with whom I'd been passing the time, and proceeded down past the stage toward the gym. As I neared the stage, though, a woman whom I knew from the food co-op, a recently found friend, greeted me. She asked where I was headed, and I explained that I was off to the gym to hear Rowan and Rice, thinking that she'd perhaps missed the announcement. But she hadn't.

"You don't want to do that," she said.

"I don't?"

"No, you really want to stay here. You want to hear Zero." There's was something about the way she said it that led me to put my gear down over by the speaker tower and wait for them to come on. She'd heard them in Colorado, where she'd lived for a decade before coming to Asheville, and thought they were a special band. I knew she was a member of some standing in the great anonymous association of entheogenic voyagers, a true
head, so I decided to see what might happen here as the band set up and plugged in.

And then they started playing. The opening number, an instrumental, positively lifted the top of my skull, and within a minute I was down at the front of the stage dancing, tears flowing down my cheeks. A month or two later I learned that they’d opened with "Tangled Hangers", one of their signature songs, written by their guitarist. That was my introduction to the music of Steve Kimock.

That was Zero's one foray into the southeast, so I never heard them again. I signed up for their listserv, though, and soon was collecting tapes of Zero shows, and dubbing them for others. The band continued to evolve – mostly, it seemed to me, because Kimock was becoming more and more adventurous as a player. By the spring of 1998, he and Bobby Vega, Zero's bass player, had formed a side-project with drummer Alan Hertz and Frank Zappa veteran guitarist Ray White: Kimock Vega Hertz and White, or KVHW. Over the next two years, through the end of 1999, KVHW played more gigs, and Zero played fewer and fewer; by the end of 1999, Zero was effectively history. Unfortunately (or not) so was KVHW. White, who had been somewhat erratic – late for some gigs, absent from others – through the run of the band, didn't show for a scheduled performance, and his band mates decided they'd had enough. After a month off, Kimock was on the road again, once more with Vega, later with Vega and Hertz, but this time the band was unmistakably his; it was the
Steve Kimock Band. And, no matter the changes in personnel along the way, it's been so since. Since that first show on February 11, 2000, at the Wetlands in New York City, the band has played nearly 400 show ( lists 397 as of yesterday, the end of November), including three in Asheville. They'll be back again, at the Grey Eagle, on Thursday, January 19th, 2006, doors at 8:00 PM.

Joining Steve this time will be the extraordinary drummer Rodney Holmes, Steve's principal collaborator since November of 2000; Reed Mathis on bass; and Robert Walter on keyboards. Rodney’s played with a host of other great lights in rock and jazz, including Santana (he played on Santana's huge radio hit "Smooth"), Wayne Shorter, Larry and Julian Coryell, and Joe Zawinul. Mathis also plays with the Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey. Robert Walter, of New Orleans, sometimes leads his own bands; the best known is probably Robert Walter’s 20th Congress. I've not seen this lineup, but I've listened closely to several shows (SKB shows taped from the stage are available
at, and audience recordings of many shows are available for free at the amazing Internet Archive ( ), and these guys have a wonderful warmth and play with a freedom of interactive imagination that can only rise from being absolutely dug in to what they’re doing.

What is it about Kimock's work that grabbed my head on that cloudy day eight years ago? He's recognized as a master of tone, and plays extremely clean, richly contoured lines. He’s a master of the lyrical phrase, has a phenomenal sense of time (which he loves to warp in ways large and small), and never seems to lose the structure of his work, no matter how discursive and exploratory the jam. It’s difficult to speak about the emotional content of music – two different listeners hear two different shows, and what either hears may have little to do with what’s on the musician’s mind – but Kimock is Zen-like in his attention to getting himself, his head, out of his way. He’s not standing up there thinking about the next note he’s going to play, he’s not-thinking about it, and playing from somewhere else. Of the uniquely powerful and moving structures of sound he builds, a phrase of an old friend of Steve’s, Doug Greene, now passed on, perhaps said it best: his playing gives you both the wound and the balm, its cure.

In a recent interview with Randy Ray at, when Randy proposed a relationship between Steve’s “method” and Zen, Steve said this about his approach to playing:

There's certainly an attitude of some of that which I try, paradoxically, to keep in mind. How best to explain that? Here's the easy way to look at it - for me, when I think the thing is working, when I think people are actually feeling the music, you know, when you're really getting it for a minute, you're not in any kind of dualistic space. You're not thinking, 'Well, I'm here and my feet hurt' or 'I'm doing this and she's doing that. These people are doing this and I wish I was doing this.' You're not in your mind at all. There's no time in it or this, that, or the other thing - it's just a totality.

Anytime you're thinking [you’re in dualistic space]. Anytime you're thinking at all. [When you’re playing] it is not a mental place - it's an entirely feeling place. It is not a place where your mental activities are keeping events discrete. There's no sense of I'm trying to do this or I'm succeeding at doing this or I'm feeling good about myself because I'm doing this.' That is automatically not where it's at. I take every opportunity to steer myself away from those states of mind, so that when I get to a place where maybe I can play, I'm playing from the same kind of place where somebody who is being receptive to music may also be feeling it too. You know what I mean? Instead of being from some ego point of view or a point of view of trying to accomplish something."

RR: Within your own framework, are you trying to gather musicians that think that way? Musicians that don't get in the way of that open space?

I don't know if it's possible to do that, or if it's entirely necessary. I think it's more important to understand how you feel music as a listener, without trying to engage yourself in it in an intellectual way or trying to define what's happening. I think when you're really enjoying something, you're really enjoying something. If you're feeling it, you're feeling it, so I try to leave it there as much as possible."

If you like jazz-inflected small band improvisation, you might want to check his show out. Who knows, you might find your own head lifted. If the creeks don't rise and the sky don't fall, I'll see you there. Whatever they play, I won't have heard it like that before; listening will be like discovering a new book by a favorite poet.

Note: The quote from Pound is from his “How To Read”, included in the Literary Essays of 1954, and the Bunting quote is from a conversation published in St. Andrew’s Review, Spring-Summer 1977, as “A Conversation With Basil Bunting”. Steve’s full interview is here.

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Blogger Andy said...

Great read, thansk for sharing.

Neat blog as well.

Congrats, (and goos placement by putting it up on the Kimock List - that how I got here)...

Rock on and keep up the srong are now in my favorites.

8:28 AM  
Blogger jeffhero said...

Excellent account of "how were you turned on to Kimock?" Very nice job, beautiful writing. Thanks.

8:35 AM  
Anonymous Andy Boyd said...

Here is the link to the Black Mountain Music Festival Zero performance from A very fine Tangled Hangers indeed...

1:19 PM  
Blogger Performance Impressions said...

Here are some Steve Kimock photos

Live music concert photography

2:38 AM  

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