Thursday, October 3, 2019

The Artistry of Bob Sheppard : "The Fine Line"

Bob Sheppard The Fine Line Challenger CR73458
For those who follow music, in all of its many different genres, the name of Bob Sheppard may not be immediately recognizable, but the chances are his work on the saxophone, flute or clarinet has been listened to and admired by many of us since the early nineteen nineties.

The now sixty-seven year old Sheppard was raised in Trenton, NJ, under the influence of the vibrant Philadelphia music scene. He got valuable experience, playing in funk and dance bands, backing up popular artist like The Fifth Dimension and Tony Bennett, and earning a spot in trumpeter Chuck Mangione’s orchestra.

Sheppard eventually relocated to the Los Angeles area and the move paid off when he landed a spot in the band of hard bop trumpet legend Freddie Hubbard, a gig that lasted several years. Sheppard has written “Playing on the same stage as Freddie was a breathtaking and frightening experience.” Hubbard hiring Sheppard gave the saxophonist unimpeachable authenticity and the kind of ‘on the job’ experience that proved priceless to the saxophonist's musical maturity. 
Freddie Hubbard and Bob Sheppard (photo credit unknown)
The industry started to take notice of this unassuming multi-reed artist and the session work became steady. He was utilized by a sea of popular music artists including Walter Becker and Donald Fagen of Steely Dan, Rod Stewart, Rickie Lee Jones, Bette Midler, James Taylor and Joni Mitchell to name a few.

In the television and movie industry of Los Angeles, Sheppard's horn has been heard on the soundtracks of movies including Jerry Maguire, Goodfellas and Forrest Gump and on television shows like Seinfeld, Cheers and Late Night with David Letterman.

Bob Sheppard (photo credit unknown)
In the world of jazz Bob Sheppard’s masterful horn work as a sideman is impressive and ubiquitous. As he says in the liner notes, even after all his years playing “To this day, there are so many elements within the study of music and the arcane nature of jazz that continues to intrigue and challenge me.”  His curriculum vitae as a sideman includes work with artists like Chick Corea, Billy Childs, Peter Erskine, John Beasley, Chris Botti, Bill Cunliffe, Stanley Clarke and Kenny Barron to name a few. His work was equally in demand for backing up on records featuring singers like Dianne Reeves, Michael Buble, Karrin Allison, Kurt Elling, Leonard Cohen and the great Ray Charles. As if these achievements are not enough Sheppard also finds the time to educate at the USC Thorton School of Music.

Sheppard hasn’t released an album as a leader since his absorbing Close Your Eyes from 2012. His latest release The Fine Line was patiently awaited by those who respect his work. The genesis of this album came about when Sheppard was introduced to the Netherlands Double Bassist Jasper Somsen at a Jazz Network event in Bremen, Germany in 2013. The introduction became a friendship and the two resolved to try to work together. With both artists maintaining demanding schedules, this album was delayed until 2016. Somsen was given the go ahead from Challenge Records to produce the record and the band recorded the music in California in March 24-26, 2018.

Sheppard’s gathered a band for the project including talented pianist John Beasley, a muse and friend of Sheppard’s since the two worked together in Freddie Hubbard’s septet. He commandeered the extraordinary drummer Kendrick Scott who the saxophonist has said has the “ability to shape the music with extraordinary groove and swing.” Dutch double bassist Jasper Somsen flew in from the Netherlands for the date. Somsen contacted his former teacher bassist John Clayton, who graciously allowed him to use Ray Brown’s double bass for this recording. The bass Brown used in his days with Oscar Peterson. 

Jasper Somsen, Bob Sheppard, Kendrick Scott, John Beasley and Sound Engineer Talley Sherwood
 The band fills out with guest artists Mike Cottone on trumpet on track 2, Simon Moullier on Vibraphone on tracks 1,6 & 8, Benjamin Shepherd on electric bass on tracks 2 & 4, Aaron Safarty on shaker on tracks 3 & 6 and Sheppard’s wife Maria Puga Lareo on vocal on the title song.

Sheppard compositions like “Edge of Trouble.” start the album off with the airy  sound of Sheppard’s sinewy soprano saxophone leading this driven composition. Sheppard’s soprano and Moullier’s complimentary vibraphone link in tandem, building on the theme like empathetic songbirds, before Moullier veers off with his own inspired improvisation. Somsen’s buoyant, pulsing bass, Beasley’s slashing keyboard work and Scott’s propulsive drums heighten the tension in superb unity.  Beneath it all, Sheppard’s presence is always felt, the quiet but powerful driving impetus in the music.  The pace changes as the instruments (bass, piano, vibes and soprano) quickly execute a fast, repeating line, forming a framework, that allows drummer Scott the space to skillfully ignite with his own creative explosion of rhythmic improvisations.

Sheppard’s “Run Amok” has a catchy, funky groove ignited by Benjamin Sheperd’s slinky electric bass lines and Scott’s Caribbean-inspired drum work. The tenor of Sheppard is clear, punctuated and Rollins-like and there is some muted trumpet work, that reminds me of Randy Brecker, by trumpeter Mike Cottone. The song has a happy, feel-good funk that recalls the Brecker Brothers in their day.

The title song, “The Fine Line,” is a gorgeous, reposeful ballad that features the wordless, celestial vocals by Maria Puga Lareo. The Sheppard composition may become a classic as it offers much room for improvisational expression over a memorable melody. The arrangement is particularly well conceived with Bob’s moving tenor and overdubbed flute and Beasley’s expressive piano sustaining the tranquil mood. Somsen’s bass is warm and large and Scott’s subdued traps are perfectly played.

Sheppard takes a piece from the world of classic soul with the Stylistics’ “The People Make the World Go ‘Round” from 1971 and re-imagines it, modernizing it and utilizing a particularly lively bass line by Benjamin Shepherd. Bob Sheppard’s vibrant tenor gives the song his imprimatur which has its own soul and emotion. 

Sheppard uses the Rodgers and Hammerstein composition, “I Didn’t Know What Time it Was,”-first played Broadway’s Too Many Girls in 1939 and later in 1957 in Pal Joey with Frank Sinatra- and contemporizes the song. Sheppard’s serpentine soprano is superb-light, nebulous and sprightly. He and Beasley seem to have, in some small way, been inspired by John Coltrane’s repurposing of “My Favorite Things” in their treatment of this classic. The beautiful song simply sings in these guys hands.

Sheppard returns to another of his own compositions, this time the Latin-inspired “Maria Tango” which features some outstanding solo work and a floating rhythm.  Somsen provides an plucky bass solo that resonates with deep tone and feeling. Some gorgeous vibes work by Moullier and Beasley’s journeyman-like accompanying piano are always a delight, but it is Sheppard’s engaged tenor saxophone work here that is just impassioned and emotionally superlative.

Somsen offers the somewhat rambunctious tune, “Above and Beyond,” that just percolates with energy and tension. The rhythm is anchored with Scott’s circular storm of drums, Somsen’s anchoring bass and Beasley’s creative and phrenetic piano. The darting soprano of unpredictable Sheppard can range from sensitive to frantic as the mood suits him and the music demands.

“Joegenic,” another Sheppard composition, saunters with swing and cool, as Somsen bass pulses the beat in tandem with Scott’s inventive drums. Sheppard’s gorgeous tone on tenor is a voice of strength and conviction that just sweeps you away with his intensity. Moullin adds some sensitive vibe work and John Beasley’s piano solo is enthusiastic and inventive. Just listen to his gorgeous cascading lines. Besides being friends for years ,it’s clear Beasley and Sheppard's have an innate intuition when playing together.
John Beasley and Bob Sheppard (photo credit unknown)
Sheppard reimagines a well-known but rarely played classic “Thanks for the Memory,” a song forever identified as comedian Bob Hope’s theme song. He and Beasley, who arranged this together, erase the schmaltz and instead inject the song with earnestness, inventiveness and cool.  Sheppard’s tenor is gorgeously Johnny Hodge-like in its hue and warmth. Somsen’s bass solo probes the lines with creativity and respect. This one brings a smile to your face.

This excellent album ends with Billy Strayhorn’s emotive “A Flower is a Lovesome Thing.” Sheppard arranges the song with a more swaggering rhythm. Beasley, Somsen and Scott create the tempo and Sheppard’s tenor articulates the theme with a commanding confidence and superb creativity, always in control and inspired by the song’s possibilities.

The Fine Line, an exceptional album and should memorialize Bob Sheppard’s artistry as both a leader and one of the most versatile and imaginative saxophonists of our time.

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