For many jazz fans, Brad Shepik (formerly Schoeppach) came to light through his work with Dave Douglas’s Tiny Bell Trio, an outfit featuring trumpet, guitar, and drums playing a range of European-influenced jazz. The guitarist demonstrated with Douglas—and soon enough with other groups such as Pachora—that he has mastery of idioms such as Balkan, Turkish, and African music as well as a facility for off-kilter but still accessible jazz.
It was, therefore, somewhat surprising that Shepik’s last release, Places You Go, was a fairly straight-ahead trio record for guitar/organ/drums. Plainly, Shepik allowed the session to dance forward in its own direction, but the absence of world music flavors was still notable.
With Human Activity Suite: Sounding a Response to Climate Change, Shepik takes that trio—with Gary Versace on various keyboards and Tom Rainey’s drums—and supplements it with the exceptionally agile bass playing of Drew Gress and Ralph Alessi on trumpet. Shepik composed most of these pieces with a specific continent in mind, and the entire suite was commissioned by Chamber Music America—premiered and recorded in June of 2008.
As a result, Human Activity Suite comes off as the most balanced and complete work of Shepik’s career. He gets to indulge his interest in various world musics, as he draws on the native music of each continent to inform his compositions. But this is also a recording that contains some of the guitarist’s most fulfilling work within the jazz tradition, with a sharp rhythm section, plus two “front line” instruments (guitar and trumpet) that play with character and fire. You could call it textbook “downtown music”—the kind of mongrel art that takes a post-modern relish in collaging together disparate elements outside the rules.
The strength of Human Activity is in making its contrasting impulses coalesce. It is neither a self-consciously avant-garde recording nor an avatar of the tradition. Shepik and his band are capable of precision and abandon, tradition and release. But because the instrumentation is essentially the same through these different styles (with the exception of Versace switching between piano, organ, and accordion), the group brings a single—if flexible—sensibility to bear on the diversity.
The North American entry in the travelogue, for example, sounds perfectly integrated. With “Blindspot”, Shepik has composed a complex funk romp that begins with Miles-ian squiggles before Rainey locks into a polyrhythmic groove attack. The voices coalesce in a tricky circular pattern, launching the melody and then a round-robin series of improvisations that put most “fusion” to shame. Alessi and Versace own distinctive voices in this context, with both players finding a way to play “outside” the tradition with conveying a sense of chaos. Shepik simply burns it up.
There is another balance, but of a different kind, on “Current”. Playing in what seems like an unidentified folk tradition, the group discovers lovely counterpoint, with Versace’s accordion acting as a lead voice while the guitar and trumpet zig and zag beneath. It is rhapsodically beautiful.
“Waves (Asia)” suggests ambiguous parentage. The droning electric introduction establishes a syncopated groove from which arises a minor-mode melody that might seem klezmer-ish (with Versace on accordion) or maybe Indian (with the guitar warbling into quarter tones), depending on context. But finding the proper referent is not necessary to enjoying the creativity and musicianship on display here. Shepik’s solo bends long tones up into keening, then moves back down the scale into distortion. Alessi plays expressively outside the harmony, smearing his sharp tone even as he starts to jab and dart. Versace’s accordion solo is spiky and eloquent, as if Keith Jarrett suddenly found himself in possession of squeezebox with crazed monkey on his shoulder.
In many ways, Versace is the key to the recording. His versatility allows the band to segue from cool impressionism to Latinate rhythms on “Lima” (Versace on funky accordion), then from chiming balladry to busy percussiveness on “Human Activity” (Versace on piano). Just as Shepik uses different guitar tones on different tracks, Versace varies his sound and, thus his attack. On both “Not So Far” and “Carbonic” he plays potent modern jazz piano, yet on “By a Foot (Europe)” his acoustic piano sounds angular and skewed, like shards of 20th century classical music emerging from the landscape.
Of course, Shepik’s compositions set the context for Versace’s work, and they are the protagonists of Human Activity Suite. Shepik arrays the quintet in such a way that the voices are interlocking parts on most of the tunes. Gress’s bass is always doing more than merely playing the roots of the chords, just as Versace is rarely if ever merely play harmonies. For that matter, the trumpet and guitar are not merely used as melody instruments. Each composition functions like an ingenious self-winding clock with precisely interlocking elements.
Human Activity Suite is not a bold statement as much as it is a complete one. Brad Shepik is becoming a leader to contend with.