[14 March 2007]
The jazz organ group has a very particular history, and one associated with grinding blues and greasy backbeat. In the last two decades, the tradition has been revisited again and again. There’s little reason to believe that there is much new to be found in the hoary form of guitar-organ-drums.
But the Brad Shepik Trio—Shepik’s guitar, Gary Versace on B-3, and Tom Rainey on drums—sounds fresh and essential on Places You Go. This is an organ trio date that recognizes a few elements of the tradition but mainly remakes the group into something new. Particularly, this is an organ trio that sounds elementally light on its feet—able to turn on a dime and dance delicately far more often than it grinds or bumps.
Shepik is one of the new jazz players who have redefined the “creative” or avant-garde side of the music in a way that is challenging but also beautiful and fun. For too long, “free” or “out” playing in jazz was a march toward atonality or rhythmic chaos. But recent years have found more and more “downtown” players working the music in ways both daring and accessible. Brad Shepik, in addition to playing with the great Paul Motian Electric Bebop Band, has found accessibility in a world music mantle—playing in Dave Douglas’s Tiny Bell Trio and in Pachora (with Chris Speed and Chris Black), reinterpreting Eastern European and Mediterranean folk music forms.
With this new trio, Shepik is closer to home and yet still mining the notion of improvising on folk forms. Here, however, the folk forms are more likely to be American. On “Five and Dime” for instance, we are distinctly in a minor-folk mode, with Shepik’s only slightly delayed guitar tracing a simple but affecting line. Versace plays with exceptional restraint, tickling a solo that sounds like it is coming form a church well around the musical corner. Rainey’s drumming—as elsewhere on the record—is light and aware, popping and dancing but never pounding. Jazz fans will be tempted to call this a Frisell-ian performance, but the playing never mimics Bill Frisell’s characteristic chordal sound or his typical wash of sustain.
Rather, the guitar group that this band most resembles is probably the John Abercrombie group that made the beloved Timeless for ECM. When Timeless emerged in 1974, it played as a combination of fusion and chamber jazz, with Jan Hammer and Jack DeJohnette bringing influences from outside the organ trio tradition. Shepik’s trio suggests a similar combination, with Rainey playing a constant dancing solo around his band mates and Versace using a light touch to foster impressionism. The tempos are often complex, as on the opener, “Temoin”, with the band playing in a count that seems to be… 13/8? “Crossing” is built on a boppish guitar line that is first mirrored by Versace and them goes trickily out of phase with the organist. Rainey plays a third staggered rhythm, to create the organ trio equivalent of a funky Steve Reich tine. But as often, what’s beautiful is a laconic simplicity. “Return” is a bell-like ballad that could have come from a strong Pat Metheny record, with Shepik playing some beautiful lines that suggest loneliness more than romance.
The more rocking side of Timeless is suggested on Places You Go, too. “Tides”, starting with a psychedelic wash and leading into a ripping set of exchanges between unison guitar/organ and drums. With the guitar solo, Versace drops in a grooving bass line on pedals and the trio is off to the gritty races. The patter between Rainey and the melodic soloists is superb—less rock backbeat than jazz solo for the drummer, but still funky and fine.
Finally, Shepik’s interest in world music is not entirely absent from this mostly-US-toned set of themes. “Batur” uses a south Asian scale for its melody and improvisational base, and Rainey plays a complex polyrhythmic accompaniment, allowing the rio to sound distinctly larger than three due to the layering of lines and patterns and textures. The continuity between the composition and the solos attests to the superb group interplay. “As Was” contains hints of a Celtic melody, giving the group a stately canvas on which to layer a serpentine collective improvisation. Shepik eventually takes over as the band slow-grooves beneath him and the song unfurls into an urgent ballad performance.
Places You Go contains many of these transformations and contrasts, as this group of downtown musicians plays pretty for you as often as it challenges you. But that’s always been the organ trio’s way—risqué one moment and friendly the next, trying to seduce you, really. Shepik, Versace, and Rainey succeed there, grabbing your attention but sweet-talking you too. It is, simple as can be, the kind of record jazz can always use more of: smart and sweet, not-too-far-out, but never too-easily in.