One morning in the mid-'70s, guitarist Steve Kimock awoke unexpectedly to the sound of North Indian classical music pouring into his room. Having recently relocated from his native Bethlehem, Pa., to the Bay Area, Kimock had scored an apartment of his own, where, as he describes it, he finally "wasn't sleeping on the floor with 17 guys." The apartment happened to adjoin the parking lot of the Ali Akbar College of Music.
"That changed me forever," Kimock recalls. "There's no question about it. If I opened my window or front door — and sometimes even if I didn't — the music from the school was right there. What a beautiful thing."
Kimock has long since maintained an affinity for musical systems from other parts of the world — fitting, given that Kimock, now 56, chafed at being confined to 12 notes during the first guitar lesson he ever took as a youngster.
"There are compromises in the standard 12-tone tuning scheme that I cannot abide," he wrote in a 2009 post on his website. When asked about that statement, he clarifies: "All these years later, I'm not resistant to the 12-tone system. I just understood early, without being able to put it into words, that the traditional tuning somehow wasn't right."
Ironically, Kimock makes exceptionally tuneful music, most of which doesn't actually reflect his private fascination with microtones (notes that exist between the 12 pitches of the Western scale). But he also bends genres with the same fluid ease he shows on the guitar strings. He draws on obvious rock and fusion elements, yet is beholden to neither; he plays instrumentals that are largely inspired by vocal melodies he hears in his head, but then never adds; and he favors a style of improvisation that emphasizes structure and taste. Despite his 30-year history with various members of The Grateful Dead (including work with The Rhythm Devils, RatDog, The Other Ones and several other groups dating back to 1979), Kimock steers clear of indulgent noodling.
"There's a shared ensemble vocabulary," he offers, "a basic form where you get a slow gathering of energy, and then it ramps up to an orgasmic peak, and then it ramps down pretty quickly. Recognizing that, I try not to do too much of that."
Kimock keeps himself on his toes by putting together ad hoc backing bands that barely get to rehearse. Given the sheer volume of material in Kimock's repertoire, the live show can be shockingly cohesive. This time around, Kimock comes to Nashville backed by none other than Parliament legend Bernie Worrell.
"I'm not into synthesizers," Kimock chuckles. "If there's a chip in it, there's something better, as far as I'm concerned. But in the same way that every note that comes out of Miles Davis's trumpet has a different shape, that's what Bernie does."
In a broader sense, the same goes for Kimock's bands.
"If what you're doing is small-band improvisation," he offers, "the stylistic aspect doesn't make that much difference."