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Distinct Blend 

The Tucson music vets behind BK Special create sweet acoustic harmony

On BK Special's new self-titled CD, there are no drums providing a backbeat and few choruses to sing along to; only two members of the trio are playing instruments. Yet within these 12 acoustic tunes, by Bobby Kimmel, Stefan George and Lavinia White, reside multiple layers of sound and emotion, leaving much for the discerning listener to digest.

What's remarkable here is that George, a virtuoso guitarist and songwriter extraordinaire whose work is prominently featured on this recording, is neither the focus nor the star--in spite of Kimmel's claims to the contrary.

"The reason this all works so well is Stefan's huge musicianship," Kimmel said at a recent rehearsal. To a degree, he's right: George is a big musical presence within the group, both onstage and in the studio. Oddly, however, his guitar work is perhaps most noticeable and significant on the tunes penned by Kimmel.

"Initially, I worried about overplaying," says George. "As a sideman, I don't want to step on any toes, but it's nice to be as free and involved (in these songs) as I want to be. And it's nice to have as much license as he (Kimmel) gives me."

Some of Kimmel's tunes, which are intensely personal narratives, actually sound like they could be collaborations between him and George. "Stefan hears these songs the way I hear them, only with more chops and imagination." This is most evident on "Train Song," "Maybe It's Time" and "Prelude to You." The truth, however, is that Kimmel acquits himself quite well on guitar.

"It's not easy for two finger-style guitarists to fit," says George.

"But they are both such good guitarists," adds White, "and this is a really good (musical) conversation."

Aside from the songwriting and the playing, what sets this group and its recording apart is the vocals. Many of these songs don't follow a traditional verse/chorus/bridge format, so there's no telling when and where a harmony will appear. This adds to the mystique and creative dynamic of the presentation. But it is also the blend of their voices that makes it so distinct.

None of them are strangers to acoustic harmony work. George and White put out three fine efforts with Songtower, their acoustic folk-rock ensemble, where they sang sweet three-part harmonies with Jan Daley. But part of what's different here, says White, "is that Stefan has had to learn to sing backup." This has allowed for harmonies not previously experienced by him and White, who, as married and musical partners, have been performing together for more than 25 years.

Before BK Special, they were also three quarters of 4 Corners, their "singing band" that included Jo Wilkinson, whose rich vocal presence and original songs were a big part of that attraction. "4 Corners was a noble effort," says White, but clearly, this new recording presents them as a different group altogether.

Kimmel's past also includes time as an original member of the Stone Poneys with Linda Ronstadt, with whom his friendship has endured. When he sent her a mostly finished copy of the album, she was enthusiastic. As a result, Ronstadt makes a guest appearance on Kimmel's heartfelt "Back in the Arms of Love." She was a "consummate professional," says George. In keeping with the spirit of the album, instead of coming in with a big-time rock-star performance "she really listened to what was going on and went for the (vocal) blend," says White.

Ironically, on an album that boasts a marquee player such as Ronstadt, it is White who is the unsung vocal star. When the band is at its best, BK Special's vocal mix is not unlike the blend between Crosby, Stills and Nash--three very different voices coming together to create something new. Within that context, White's harmony--like that of like Graham Nash--is the one that is the most distinct, pulling and joining the other two voices together.

Kimmel thinks the formula is quite simple. "We rehearse in this room once a week and with no electric enhancement. We also owe a lot to (co-producer) Duncan (Stitt). We're only a trio, but he really filled up the speakers."

Like most great recordings, this is not an album most people are going to fully appreciate upon the first or even second listening. But patience is a virtue, and the rewards are deeply satisfying.

More by Jim Lipson

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