A frequent lament about the contemporary jazz scene is that the working jazz group seems to be something of an endangered species, that a group that one might hear on a particular date is just as likely to consist of an ad-hoc collection of talented musicians as it is a practicing ensemble. The L.A-based Shapes, however, is very much a group, their debut album The Last Farewell
the product of nearly two years of the same musicians collaborating. Consisting of original music written by the group’s pianist, vibraphonist and leader, Roger Burn, guitarist Michael Higgins or harmonica player Tollak Ollestad, the album was produced by bassist Jimmy Haslip of the Yellowjackets and features guest appearances from Flora Purim & Airto, Russell Ferrante and Haslip himself.
Roger Burn is a veteran keyboardist who has worked with such different artists as Lionel Richie and the Brian Setzer Orchestra. He says of the group that "It all came out of me buying a grand piano, then calling some friends and saying ‘Let’s jam!’" Soon the group was playing at clubs in Southern California. "The first jam session was so much fun, the next thing you know it turned into a year and a half of rehearsals. One of the things that happened was I started to realize how much I missed jazz and that, after playing popular music for so long, I didn’t want to forget why I got into music in the first place."
Not that Burn has any regret about his days in pop and rock. "I learned a lot playing those gigs. And I had some great experiences, like working with Phil Ramone, who produced the second Brian Setzer Orchestra CD, Guitar Slinger
. Working with Phil was a career highlight for me since he's produced so many great artists that I admire, like Paul Simon and Billy Joel. I learned a lot about the business of playing music. I even subbed for a friend of mine on a TV show with ‘Weird’ Al Yankovic. Some guys I know might be embarrassed to tell other musicians about that, but Al was great to work with and I had a lot of fun, too!"
"That’s an important word, ‘fun.’ I think that gets lost a lot in jazz today. People get caught up in playing what I call ‘Dead Guy Jazz’-and I don’t mean any disrespect to the great artists, past and present, that helped build the music and have since passed on. I mean the type of thinking that everything that happened after 1955 or whatever should be thrown out the window, and that everything has to be completely serious. I mean, OK, maybe if you’re Miles Davis and you really do have that whole dark mystique, I’m cool with that. But what’s wrong with having some fun and also trying something a little unusual? Jazz, as I understand it, is about innovation and even sometimes breaking the so-called rules. Where would jazz be had Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman and later, with groups like Weather Report and so many other innovative artists, listened to the critics and just played it safe? Not that I'm placing myself among those giants, but that's what Shapes aspires to; to be a bit different and hopefully, innovative while still paying tribute to the essence of jazz."
The 13 tracks on The Last Farewell
are written in a variety of styles, from bop and ballads to bossa nova and other Brazilian- influenced sounds. "The idea of Shapes is to be able to borrow ideas from everywhere--one of the reasons we call the band that, is because we want to be able to take on different forms," the pianist says. "We also use some instruments that are somewhat unusual in jazz, probably starting with Tollack’s harmonica. On the title song, we use a pedal steel and the track starts with a recording of someone getting in a car and driving off. We actually had an idea for some bagpipes, but we decided not to use them for now.
"The Last Farewell
probably seems a little ironic for the title of a debut CD, and that’s very definitely something I was thinking when I decided to name it that. The concept is higher than that, though. The song The Last Farewell
is about how when Mike (Higgins, the song’s composer) was four years old, his father died in a car wreck. The song is a dedication to Mike’s parents, and the whole album is about dedication and remembrance. Life is short and it’s important to remember the people who came before us and pay tribute to the people that are influential in our lives."
On The Last Farwell
, Shapes consists of Burn, Higgins, Ollestad, bassist Dean Taba, reed player Andy Suzuki and drummer Michael Barsimanto, though Barsimanto has since left to work on his own band the Groove Congress and been replaced by Dave Derge.
Jimmy Haslip became involved with the group serendipitously as a result of Taba’s being out of town the week of a particular gig. "I asked Mike (Barsimanto) who he thought we could get to play bass at the gig," relates Burn, "And he said, ‘How about Jimmy Haslip?’ I said, ‘Oh, yeah, THAT’s gonna happen.’ But, Barsimanto knew him and somehow got him to do the gig, and it went well. A little while later, he calls me from JFK airport to tell me how much he enjoyed playing with us. I was totally blown away that Jimmy would call me long distance to tell me how much he enjoyed playing this $60 gig. So when it came time to record, I thought this is the guy I want to produce the band.
"Having Jimmy Haslip in the booth was perfect for this record for a lot of reasons. I could’ve produced the record, but having Jimmy in there let me concentrate on playing. And when you would look and see Jimmy Haslip, it raises the level of your performance. Jimmy’s so cool, you could literally throw a grenade at him and it wouldn’t bother him. He was a calming presence." The Last Farewell
is hardly that for Shapes; the CD is receiving airplay on dozens of stations across the country, and the band is playing regularly. One gig that Burn is particularly looking forward to is the band’s upcoming trip to New York City to perform at the International Association of Jazz Educators annual convention in January, 2004. "I can’t wait to show them how we play jazz in L.A."