Feature/Interview

Brad Shepik (UK trio dates with Calum Gourlay & James Maddren, 9-12 August)

He works incredibly hard, leaps into any situation he likes the sound of, has played in the bands of Dave Douglas and Paul Motian, and is making a rare visit to the UK for a few gigs and a masterclass. Brad Shepik talks, across the Atlantic, to John Fordham:

Brad Shepik (Photo: Caroline Mardok)

You might conclude that Brad Shepik is a brilliant hired-gun sideman who can play anything with anyone – or maybe even that he’s the victim of some kind of attention-deficit disorder – if you were to catch a glimpse of the prolific New York guitarist’s work-diary with no idea of his background, his influences, or how he feels about making music. An assignment with a left-field organ/guitar/drums trio might be in there, next to a date with one of eclectic flautist Jamie Baum’s western-Asian groups, or a world-fusion gig with Macedonian Roma percussionist Seido Salifoski, or the klezmer and Balkan-influenced Paradox Trio. The list seems to grow all the time. 

But a closer look reveals the real story – about a uniquely creative original who has mostly travelled under the radar of mainstream jazz fans for over two decades, despite long stints with such high-profile leaders as trumpeter Dave Douglas (in the 1990s Tiny Bell Trio) and the late great Paul Motian (in the Electric Bebop Band). Shepik is a world-musician to his fingertips, who brings that overworked description new meanings, a distantly-audible Jim Hall or John Abercrombie descendent who is nonetheless genuinely unconcerned about what is called ‘jazz’ and what isn’t, and a guitar-playing obsessive who will jump into almost any situation in which he likes the company and the sound. He’s also a busy and influential teacher, notably at New York University and Boston’s New England Conservatory.  

The Washington-born, Seattle-raised 53 year-old makes a rare visit to the UK in August, playing gigs and a masterclass in London, Nottingham and Manchester with local partners Calum Gourlay (bass) and James Maddren (drums). When we talk on the line to New York, I start by asking him if, on a tour with unfamiliar partners, he might need to narrow the broad personal horizons that can take in Balkan, Turkish and north African ideas as well as jazz. 

“I don’t make distinctions between any of those elements,” Shepik states, with an enthusiastic certainty that leaves you in no doubt it’s a guiding principle with him. “I’ll be playing some new things and some older things – pieces from as far back as the early 2000s, pieces adapted from my organ trio with Gary Versace and Mark Ferber, music taken from The Commuters, which is a band I have with percussionist Seido Salifoski. There might be some things I haven’t recorded yet, written for a trio I have with percussionist John Hadfield and an Iranian-American bassist called Sam Minaie, and from a group with Ben Monder playing Fender Bass VI. I never choose one particular thing. When we play these gigs in England, I just want the music to flow really well. Sometimes you can do that by complicated means if there’s time for enough rehearsal, sometimes you have to do it by simpler means – but either way, the wide-open tradition of improvisation coming through jazz allows you to make all kinds of mixes work, and that’s what excites me.” 

Shepik grew up in Seattle, playing the saxophone first, and at the age of ten beginning to investigate his father’s guitar. He studied at the city’s Cornish College of the Arts, meeting the guitarist and pianist Ralph Towner there when he was 19. Towner had already made a big impact on the increasingly eclectic 1970s/‘80s jazz agenda, notably through the Oregon quartet (which drew on folk, Indian and classical sources), and ECM’s Solstice sessions recorded with Norwegian sax star Jan Garbarek. 

“Meeting Ralph Towner had a big influence on me,” Shepik says. “He was a great and supportive teacher, he encouraged me to transcribe everything I liked the sound of. From my teens, I liked tunes in signatures like 7/8 or 11/8, rhythms that weren’t often used in jazz, I liked music from Greece or Turkey or Morocco. And Ralph’s Solstice had such a mood, I used to play that record over and over.”

Through his college years (playing Blues Brothers tunes in party bands alongside deeper explorations) Shepik consolidated an original guitar technique from the music of many cultures. He moved to New York, and on April Fools’ Day 1991 got a call from Paul Motian that he assumed at first was a joke. Motian invited Shepik to join his Electric Bebop Band, an engagement that occupied the next five years, sometimes in parallel with joining Dave Douglas and drummer Jim Black in the groundbreaking Tiny Bell Trio, which wove American jazz into European and Balkan folk traditions. 

“With the Tiny Bell Trio,” Shepik says, “we were playing all kinds of folk songs, but we were turning right around and reinterpreting that music in our own ways from the off. I was also finding other kinds of initiations then, through things like Yuri Yunakov’s Wedding Band, he’s a Turkish-Bulgarian Roma. Another really important person in my connection to Balkan music is Matt Darriau, a saxophonist who plays Balkan music, klezmer with The Klezmatics, and Celtic music, and who was already trying to mix Balkan rhythms with an open concept of jazz improvisation when I met him in 1991. It was through him that I first met and played with Seido. I joined Matt’s Paradox Trio in the mid-‘90s and we still play together – we toured Bulgaria and Roumania last year. Also, though we don’t play as often, the clarinetist and saxophonist Chris Speed, Jim Black, a bassist called Chris Tordini and I also mix Balkan music with jazz improvisation in a group called Pachora. There’s a diaspora of Roma and Balkan communities in New York, it’s an influence on music in the States that isn’t as well understood as it should be.”

Alongside his packed playing schedule, Brad Shepik is an impassioned educator, and feels that he has learned an immense amount as a player and composer from that side of his life.  

“When I look back on that period in the ‘90s,” he reflects, “I feel now that I could have done better with those connections if I’d known some things I learned later. One of the classes I teach is a blues history class, and it’s my favourite because it’s connected a lot of dots for me – between blues and wider folk musics, and in links with the jazz tradition. If you listen to jazz guitarists like Jim Hall, or Wes Montgomery, or Charlie Christian, you can hear a lot of Lester Young in their phrasing, and appreciating how fantastic Lester Young was has come later in my life, through teaching.” 

Before we call time, I suggest to Brad Shepik that the inclusiveness of his music, and its indifference to separation by  frontiers, or language, or culture, seems in sharp contrast to some of the rhetoric surfacing in the United States and Europe these days. Shepik sighs, but he soon recovers his dynamically animated self. “I saw Salif Keita in Brooklyn the other day, he was totally magical, and an inspiration,” he reflects. “Music is the universal language. when we’re trying to accentuate the positive in times like this, we shouldn’t let ourselves forget that.”

Brad Shepik, with Calum Gourlay and James Maddren, play:

Friday 9 August: The Crypt, Camberwell
Saturday 10 August: Peggy’s Skylight, Nottingham
Sunday 11 August: Masterclass for the London Jazz Guitar Society
Monday 12 August: NQ Jazz, Manchester

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