Monthly Archives: August 2013

Bob Culbertson and the Chapman Stick

Bob Culbertson playing on Pier 39, San Francisco, August 2013

Bob Culbertson playing on Pier 39, San Francisco, August 2013

Walking along the Embarcadero in San Francisco very recently, I heard the most beautiful music floating across the late afternoon breeze. It sounded like a trio, playing a gorgeous flowing piece of easy-listening jazz; there was no percussion, but something that sounded like a marimba, accompanying a harp or two – an actual sit down harp, not a harmonica.

I approached Pier 39 in search of the trio, but what I found was something and someone far more amazing. I had discovered Bob Culbertson, master of the Chapman Stick. He was playing a tune I did not recognize, but I stood enthralled for a full ten minutes, listening, for it sounded like he carried an entire band in his two hands.

The Chapman Stick: where guitar meets piano.

The Chapman Stick: where guitar meets piano.

I had never seen a Chapman Stick in person before. It is a remarkable instrument that resembles the neck of a guitar, but longer, and with no actual body. It is worn vertically, from belt buckle to shoulder and is played with both hands primarily pressing the strings down onto the frets. There are different models, having either 8, 10 or 12 strings, with the heavier bass notes in the centre, and lighter melodic notes toward the outside.

The result of this complex playing arrangement, at least in the hands of a master, is remarkable, and Bob Culbertson is indeed a master. His slender fingers walked up and down the Stick’s fretboard, threading their way constantly and carefully to new footfalls. The was no dramatic strumming, as guitarists are prone to do, no rocking of the body as pianists do, and of course no sharp intakes of breath as horn players most do. Instead the music just came from this delicate dancing caress, and it was remarkable.

Dubbed “The Segovia of the Stick,” Bob’s playing delivers everything that a jazz trio can do. Sensitive, captivating melodies backed by a walking bass line, with counterpoints weaving seemingly effortlessly between. That one person can keep track of so much and deliver so much is truly amazing.

Many years ago when Stanley Jordan was still relatively unknown, people marvelled at the idea that music could be drawn from a fretted string instrument by hammering rather than plucking. I remember hearing a jazz station DJ introducing a Jordan track one time by daring the listeners to believe him when he said there was only one musician playing.

The hammering technique for guitar has a number of masters and devotees. In Toronto we are lucky enough to have an amazing player by the name of Andrew Lopatin who actually plays in the subways. He too, is worth stopping and listening to, even if you are late for work.

But the Chapman Stick goes far beyond what a six or seven string guitar can do. It has a soft, flowing musicality that truly benefits from sensitive pickups doing the work of amplification. It is not well known in popular music circles; perhaps the most well-known player is Tony Levin, an alumnus of King Crimson, and acts as diverse as Mike Oldfield, the Blue Man Group and the Dave Mathews Band have also experimented with it.

Listening to Bob Culbertson play is simply awe inspiring. There are moments when it seems he is not actually playing at all, but merely holding the Stick upright, while it does the work. But that’s an unfair description. Bob is a master – one of those extraordinary musicians who becomes part of the music. It flows through him, to the instrument. Glenn Gould, the pianist, was like that. So was Vladimir Horowitz. Robin Williams and Eddie Izzard share this talent in storytelling and comedy. There is something that seems to go beyond mere practice and delivery, beyond merely working an instrument to make art. With artists like Bob, there doesn’t seem to be any force required. He simply lets the music descend into him and play itself on the strings.

But it would be unfair too to dismiss all the years of hard work and practice that Bob must have put into his craft. His face is placid as he plays, but his eyes are sharp. He scans the crowd, singling out those who truly enjoy the music and he makes a true connection.

Thankfully, for those who cannot get to San Francisco to see him, his music is available online, and this is obviously the easiest way to experience his true genius. His website is www.stickmusic.com.

For me, a musician who has always struggled to make a guitar do what it is supposed to do, it is a rare privilege to look over the fence and observe a true virtuoso – someone who is a conduit of melody – and to partake in its all encompassing beauty.

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Why I Admire Performers Like Mariah Carey

Mariah Carey

Mariah Carey

To be honest, I have never given Mariah Carey much thought. As an aging rocker raised on Elton John, Paul McCartney and U2, I have certainly experienced my share of glamorous musicians and diva antics, but I have never had much time for warbling femme-fatales, and so she, along with Celine Dion and Beyoncé have always been kept in a soundproof box in the back of my mind. To be fair, I admire any entertainer who can stand up in front of a crowd and wow them, regardless of the type of music they perform, so I never went so far as to say mean things about them. Its just that the specific tone of their singing never appealed to me. OK, maybe Cher once in a while, but I have always preferred female performers with a little more of a gruff edge, like Melissa Etheridge and Susan Tedeschi, and a little less time spent in the makeup chair. This (photo upper-right) is how I have always understood Mariah Carey to look. I figured this was probably actually her passport photo, given how glamorous she is.

So it amazed me when I saw her in one of the best movies I have ever seen, Precious, by Lee Daniels. This is a tough movie to watch. It is gritty, brutal and extremely memorable. The performance by Gabourey Sidibe was stellar, but in my opinion the show was completely stolen by Mo’Nique, who is better known as a comedienne.

Mo’Nique played a real SOB of a mom. A TV-addicted welfare case who treated her daughter worse than dirt. And it is only (SPOILER ALERT) during her tour-de-fource scene at the end of the film do you truly find out why. Her character was not a pretty character, but Mo’Nique played it well.

Mariah Carey was in this movie too. She played the social worker who sought to understand and fix the problems in Precious’s life. And she looked like this.

Also Mariah Carey

Also Mariah Carey

No makeup. No big hair. No radiant skin. She looked like every other 9-to-5 schmoe out there who has a job to do, but who doesn’t really like it very much.

I find it extremely admirable when beautiful celebrities shed their skin and reveal to the world that beneath it all, they are still one of us. They weren’t born looking like Halle Berry (OK, maybe Halle Berry was). They were lucky enough to make it big in a vicious industry where most fall away, and their product is big, wonderful excessive enormousness.

So I salute both Mariah Carey and Mo’Nique for taking what some might consider a big risk in appearing on the big screen in all their plain normality. To me this only makes them more beautiful.

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