Guitarist Steve Kimock has pursued a singularly varied musical career, one that over the past three decades has seen him collaborate with Bruce Hornsby, members of the Grateful Dead and Bonnie Raitt while also founding and fronting cutting-edge fusion bands. Through it all Kimock has cemented his reputation as one of the leading exponents of guitar improvisation and innovation.
''I've always kind of considered what I'm doing small-band improvisation,” Kimock told me once in an interview. “That kind of allowed me to be like Booker T. and Miles Davis. It's not like a big swing band or something like that. It's just a couple of guys get together and react off each other.
''I've been doing basically what I've been doing – the same philosophy toward playing in terms of the amount of musical freedom and how much of a collaborative effort the thing should be.”
It’s safe to say that vibe will be much in evidence when Bill Evans' Soulgrass comes to Northern California this week. The band performs Friday at Yoshi’s in Oakland, Saturday at Sweetwater in Mill Valley, Sunday at Humboldt Brews in Arcata and Monday at Kuumbwa Jazz Center in Santa Cruz. The group in addition to Kimock and Evans (saxophone) includes Tim Carbone (violin) and Jeff Pevar (guitar).
Evans needs little introduction, having joined Davis’ group in 1980 at 22. He went on to record six albums with the jazz legend and toured the world numerous times. Evans’ other credits include collaborations John McLaughlin and the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Herbie Hancock, Lee Ritenour, Dave Grusin, and Steps Ahead.
Kimock was raised in Bethlehem, Pa. He recalled in our interview two strong influences on his musical upbringing, his folk-singing Aunt Dotti and his guitar-playing cousin Kenny. Through the former, Kimock was introduced to the world of acoustic music, what he called ''the Philly Folk Festival vibe.'' The latter caught his eye the day he brought home an electric guitar, a ''gold-top Les Paul.''
Kimock managed to straddle both genres in the Goodman Brothers, the band that in the mid-'70s brought him to the West Coast.
''It was – curiously enough – two guitars, bass and drums,'' Kimock said. ''But it was slightly more exotic than your average rock band because it was acoustic-based and it leaned heavily on the material. There were some great songs.''
Settling in Northern California set Kimock's improvisational instincts loose. Combining virtuoso technique with complex harmonies, he began jamming with some of the region's established players, including John Cipollina and Nicky Hopkins. He met and befriended Jerry Garcia, the Grateful Dead guitar guru who, shortly before his death, hailed Kimock as his ''favorite unknown guitar player.''
In 1979, Kimock joined Heart of Gold, a band fronted by Dead alumni Keith and Donna Godchaux. It wasn't his last association with the famed San Francisco group. Over the next 20 years, Kimock lent his guitar talents to solo projects by the Dead's Bob Weir (Kingfish) and Vince Welnick (Missing Man Formation).
Kimock's prime outlet in the 1980s and '90s was Zero, the fusion outfit he founded with drummer Greg Anton. The group released a series of albums and also is going back on the road. Upcoming Northern California dates include October 24 at the Center for the Arts in Grass Valley, October 25 at the Mystic Theatre in Petaluma and October 26 at the American Legion Hall in Redwood City.
In early 1998, Kimock joined Bobby Vega, Ray White and Alan Hertz to form KVHW, which toured across the country. During that period, he also played with the Other Ones, sharing the stage with the surviving Dead members. There followed a stint with Phil Lesh and Friends, including Hot Tuna's Jorma Kaukonen and Trey Anastasio of Phish.
Kimock also has pursued a varied career fronting his own groups. Through it all, Kimock has found an audience for his brilliant improvisation. He insists it wasn't a path he consciously chose.
''I just wanted to play,” Kimock said. “It could have fallen out, as they say, in any number of ways. I like what I do. That's basically all there is to it.''
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