Bruce Kaphan Quartet – Bruce Kaphan Quartet (2012)

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photos by James Saxon

One thing became readily apparent to me from listening to Bruce Kaphan’s new album and that is, Kaphan and I are in strong agreement that there really isn’t any reason why the pedal steel guitar doesn’t belong in jazz or any other styles of music. Kaphan, however, goes well beyond thought and has recently supplemented a career as a producer, studio engineer and sideman with a mission to show the world that the pedal steel can be a viable and relevant instrument in the land of swing and improvisation.

The pedal steel guitar hadn’t been used much in jazz, of course, and Kaphan isn’t likely to kick off a revolution despite his great efforts; even all the buzz surrounding the emergence of Robert Randolph hadn’t exactly sparked a legion of wannabes. But man, it sure does sound good. I can’t think of a lot of examples of the instrument being used in jazz or jazz fusion ahead of Kaphan, but perhaps the first time I can recall is on Charlie Hunter’s Bing, Bing, Bing album from ’95, where Dave Philips’s pedal steel on “Fistful of Haggis” not only fit, but was just as funky as the second line beat behind it.

Kaphan, whose list of credits include member of the American Music Club and session work for R.E.M, The Black Crowes, Jewel and John Lee Hooker, made his solo debut with the gorgeously textural and offbeat Slider: Ambient Excursions For Pedal Steel Guitar (2001), followed by the similar Hybrid. With Bruce Kaphan Quartet, however, Kaphan moves explicitly into the world of jazz and does so with a permanent backing band, abandoning the do-it-myself method that dominated his first two albums.

The “Quartet” really consists of six players, because the bass is coming from either Jeffery Wash’s fretless electric bass or John Wiitala’s standup acoustic one, and either John R. Burr or Rich Kuhns play the piano. Jason Lewis brings the drums and percussion. Kaphan, who can play a wide assortment of instruments, sticks with just the pedal steel guitar and a little bit of synth.

With Bruce Kaphan Quartet, Kaphan seems determined to have that pedal steel guitar crash yet more genre parties. The textural and ambient qualities that graced his first two albums still linger on this one, especially on the opener “AEther,” which with the band floating right along with him makes the tune resemble an ECM recording. “Waiting” and “Been Here Soon” move into a folk direction and the focal point for these tracks are the group interaction in general and the pedal steel/bass interaction in particular. “Grapple With The Apple” isn’t the bebop like the “Scrapple From The Apple” title it borrows from, but it does swing along nicely through Lewis’ shifting tempos; Burr’s piano both in unison with Kaphan and on his own drive this song.

The three covers have little in common with each other, which serve Kaphan’s purpose well, if the purpose to show how his pedal steel can adapt to different flavors of instrumental music. “Birdland” (video above) is performed with an arrangement virtually identical to the original but Kaphan takes over for the sax and pieces of other lead parts; Wash’s bass is spot-on perfect. The pedal steel gives “What’s New” an elegant countrypolitan flair, which neatly suits the song. Kaphan likewise figures out how to make his instrument a natural for The Allman Brothers’ classic instrumental “Jessica,” his pedal steel making a close approximation of Dicky Betts’ lead guitar and Gregg Allman’s organ combined.

Bruce Kaphan’s first record with a formal ensemble reveals more possibilities sprung forth from his creative musical mind. The pedal steel guitar: it’s not just for country anymore.

Bruce Kaphan Quartet goes on sale July 24, by Wiggling Air Records. Visit Bruce Kaphan’s website for more info.

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S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on,, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at
S. Victor Aaron
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