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.
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.