The San Francisco sound is not limited to the Greatful Dead, Quicksilver Messenger Service or Santana. Take the improvisational influences of The Dead along with an immersion into the Indian music that was introduced to the American audiences via The Beatles and you suddenly find the musical vision of Bruce Kaphan. With jazz much like life, expect the unexpected as the primary sonic weapon of choice for Kaphan is of all things - the pedal steel guitar but this amazing 4tet is as far from country music as one can get otherwise the odds of you reading this review now would be slim to none. Kaphan would seem to relish the sonic road less traveled which peaked my interest almost immediately.
There are a handful of artists that perhaps specialize in lyrical percussion, tuba, and electric violin and the end result is normally a slow fade into musical obscurity or a quick and relatively painless death by sonic self indulgence. In short, Bruce Kaphan gracefully sidesteps the self imposed limitations of industry imposed genre and have turned out an impressive if not eclectic recording that would be most critics worst nightmare and put most record label executives looking for the nearest bridge to make that final leap from. Kaphan's musical resume is impressive with a quick run down of names including The Black Crowes, REM, and John Lee Hooker. Now we find the Bruce Kaphan Quartet pushing the musical envelope even further with perhaps the best description of their sound in the most general of terms is ambient jazz mixed with fusion elements that the more than formidable 4tet simply slay in the final analysis.
An organic balance of originals along with some killer covers has the Bruce Kaphan Quartet bordering on addictive as they put forth not necessarily a new sound but a celebration of everything that is right and embodies the spirit of improvised music played at an incredibly high level. The covers alone are stunning in harmonic depth with "Birdland" from Joe Zawinul along with the jazz standard "What's New" and the Allman Brothers classic "Jessica." Original tunes by Kaphan including "Waiting" and "Grapple With The Apple" hint of a bebop influence without necessarily going over the top.
I have to admit that on occasion a pre-conceived notion or two on a release has popped in my head before listening but I quickly dissuade those in an effort to give the release a fair shake. The Bruce Kaphan Quartet does not need my help. Instrumental music this strong and this well thought can stand on its own and stand up to any aesthetic test you may wish to attempt. The only musical question left unanswered is how do you take a traditional country and western instrument such as the pedal steel and morph it into an exciting an viable jazz voice?
The 4tet as an ensemble is literally flawless and plays with the precision of a surgeon. One of the years best and most entertaining releases for 2012!
Tracks: Aether; Waiting; Been Here Soon; Grapple With The Apple; Iz Isn't; Birdland; What's New; Running With The Big Dogs; En Noir Et Blanc; Jessica; Highways Remembered.
Personnel: Jason Lewis: drums, percussion; Jeffrey Wash: fretless electric bass; Bruce Kaphan: pedal steel guitar, synth; John R. Burr: piano ( 1,2,4,5,6,7,8,10); Rich Kuhns: piano (3,9,11); John Wiitala: upright acoustic bass.