Brad Shepik’s latest trio record Places You Go features the guitarist/composer continuing his upward trajectory. Having worked with artists like Dave Douglas and Paul Motian through the years, his sensibilities and abilities have become both refined and open. His playing and writing get deeper with each recording and this one may be a bigger leap forward than any in his recent past.
He’s joined again by Tom Rainey on the drums who is consistently creative without losing groove when that is what's called for. The new record also features organist Gary Versace, giving the recording something approximating that old school ‘organ trio’ sound, but it’s just an approximation.
Shepik is still very involved in looking forward and following the muse, whether it leads to traditional territory or otherwise. We spoke about Places You Go and some other issues as well, before Shepik took off for a tour:
JazzReview: So I want to start with the players you’re with on your latest record Places You Go. The drummer Tom Rainey is really great. I know him a little bit from his work with Tim Berne, which is real heavy stuff--somewhat different from what you’ve got going on this new record. I’m wondering how you two hooked up.
Brad Shepik: I’ve known Tom since the beginning of when I moved to New York in the early 90’s. I’d hear him play a lot with New and Used and also Kenny Werner. I guess we started playing together in Andy Laster’s band. We all did a record together in the 90’s. I’ve been a fan of Tom’s playing for a really long time so when the chance came to play with him, we just started to play and it took off.
JazzReview: What was that Andy Laster record?
Brad Shepik: It was called Polyogue. It’s on Songlines, actually, from 1995 or 1994. I forgot to mention Tom’s playing with Fred Hersch too, of course. He’s an amazing musician, Tom. He can play so many kinds of music and put his own feeling into it.
JazzReview: I’m not as familiar with his stuff as I’d like to be. I really only knew about him through hearing some of the Tim Berne stuff and now your new record.
Brad Shepik: Yes. That’s kind of another whole aspect of his thing [Tim Berne]. I don’t think we ever played with Tim together, but we’ve just had a history of several years--at least 10 years for sure. We’ve played sessions too with guys around at the time, when I actually had a place to session in (laughs). He adds so much to the music. Sometimes when Tom isn’t available, we’ll still do a gig. It’s still really fun and I get a lot out of it, but it’s something different with Tom.
JazzReview: He’s got a real nice feel on your new record. They’re great tunes. That’s actually my favorite part of your bag is your writing, and he’s fitting right in there stylistically with everything. How about Gary Versace? I wasn’t that familiar with him either. He sounds great.
Brad Shepik: Gary is really kind of ubiquitous these days. He’s playing with everybody. He moved back to New York around 2002. We started playing shortly after that, little gigs around town. Yeah, he’s a monster. He plays organ, accordian, and piano He and Tom had a real nice hook up. They really dig playing together.
JazzReview: Sometimes in an ‘organ trio’ group, the organist will really have this dual role: one being the "bassist" and the other being the comping instrument. I didn’t really get that vibe on this record. Gary’s playing really sounds like one voice, real integrated, while he’s doing all these things. It might have something to do your writing, kind of built into it?
Brad Shepik: Well, it sounds complete to me. I don’t know how to analyze it. I’m listening more to the interplay between the musicians and that aspect of it. If that’s fulfilling, it’s not necessary for me to hear a quarter note on every beat. But yeah, I really enjoy playing with both of these guys a lot.
JazzReview: I recognize the first tune on this new record, "Temoin." It’s also on the Lingua Franca record. The others I hadn’t heard before. Were they all written for this record?
Brad Shepik: Yes. Well, we’ve been playing them for a while actually. Really the only things that I had to kind of finish for the record were "As Was" and "Batur." I don’t usually think of it as a date and write 10 tunes and that’s the date. I try to have a steady stream of stuff that’s been played and then try and capture that after it’s been explored a little bit and people are comfortable with the material.
JazzReview: This may be an odd perception thing within myself, but it seems to me that your tone, your sound, on the two most recent records [Lingua Franca and Places You Go] is a little different from the records Babkas, The Well, and The Loan. It seems fuller to me. Is it something you’re doing playing-wise, or maybe the recording studio
Brad Shepik: It’s probably all those [earlier] records you mentioned I was playing a different guitar. Another two trio records I made for The Knitting Factory, Short Trip and Drip, both had that guitar I’d been playing since 1998.
JazzReview: I really like the sound from the last two records that I’ve been listening to.
Brad Shepik: Thanks.
JazzReview: It’s a real nice sound. Bigger to my ear somehow, warmer. There’s a tune, I think track 5, on Places You Go, that impressed me as somewhat different than all the other music I’d heard from you on the records I’ve mentioned so far. It’s more in a ballad, ’Americana’ vein - much of it very guitaristic as well which I tend to love. It’s got a real sweet, open flavor to it. Different from the Balkan, Eastern, world type of vibe you’ve been getting to earlier on. What made you want to put this type of tune into the mix here?
Brad Shepik: I think the track you’re thinking of is called Five And Dime. Kind of G [Major] and E minor, slow 12/8 feeling. It’s just a tune that I heard. I think I wrote that one in an airport. I was coming back from a gig with [Oud player] Simone Shaheen. I remember writing it either at the airport or right after the gig while we were waiting for a ride home in Washington, D.C. It definitely wasn’t inspired by the music we’d played that night because we played Middle Eastern music with Simone. I don’t know. I just thought it was a tune and why not play it with guys that I like to play with. It doesn’t have to be part of a concept record. I just thought it was something we could play together. It worked out.
JazzReview: It definitely worked out. Nice changes for soloing over as well. So I want to ask you about your compositional concentration on musics from other countries; Balkan, Eastern melodies and rhythms, etc A lot of your records from a few years back really concentrated on that stuff, World music (that term is kind of weird to me). I wonder is there a specific reason you’d wanted to focus on those styles of playing and composition, or was it purely a musical interest? I know that, say, someone like John Zorn also has a personal interest in his Masada and Tzadik stuff as well as just the music itself.
Brad Shepik: No, it’s not really personal in that sense. It’s just music that I’ve been listening to for a long time - since around the late 80s. I was just taking records out of the library that looked cool. One record led to another, and then buying records. Then when I moved to New York and I met Matt Darriau and Dave Douglas, we explored that music a little bit more. Then Chris Speed also got into it and we started Pachora. Around the same time I was playing with Yuri Yunakov, a Bulgarian saxophone player (Bulgarian Wedding Band), and learning his music by ear. So it all kind of fit together and expanded from there. I ended up with a lot of tunes that didn’t make it into those other bands, Pachora and Paradox Trio. So I just started my own band and that’s where those two records, The Loan and The Well, came from. We did tours [as well].
JazzReview: So it was some personal interest of your own at first and then some other people that you were playing with also became interested and also wanted to go along in that direction?
Brad Shepik: Yes. Definitely Matt Darriau had really studied that music a lot and I learned a lot from him. And the Tiny Bell Trio used some elements of Balkan music so I listened and studied up. I think I learned a lot about playing Balkan music from Seido Salifoski, the percussionist from The Paradox Trio. He got me into the Bulgarian Wedding Band. Just playing with him [helped]. I got a lot of records from him too.
JazzReview: Have you been doing a lot of traveling as well? To some of the places in the world where these musics comes from? Do you think being there helps solidify the stuff needed to play in the style?
Brad Shepik: A little bit. I’d really have to live there to truly play that style. I’m not really interested in playing the definitive stylistic things that are associated with the different kinds of Balkan music. There are all different kinds of styles. Last summer I did a concert in New York with this guitar trio Starcevich from Serbia. They play Balkan music. A father and his two sons. They’re incredible. They play a bunch of different Balkan styles: Romanian, Macedonian, Bulgarian, Gypsy, Greek type stuff, classical adaptations of Brahms, the Hungarian Dances, crazy stuff. They’re really, really good. The ornaments in their melodies are really intricate. I have a theory that it’s all wrapped up with speaking the language, and the rhythm of the speech. Not just with that music but with Brazilian music or African music or Chinese music or Japanese music It has to do with how you speak. Flamenco music and Spanish. I don’t see myself as being able to do anything with that beyond being inspired by it and trying to make an expression.
JazzReview: I like that idea of all that other cultural stuff affecting the music and everything kind of fusing together in language and then the style of playing. It makes sense to me.
Brad Shepik: Yes. You can sound Bulgarian for five seconds or five minutes but that’s not really what interests me about playing that music. It’s the interplay and the conversation that happens when everybody doesn’t necessarily have to play a super specific role that interests me. The tunes that I write are set up, hopefully, without too much information and there’s a lot of room for everybody to put something of their own on it. Hopefully, even after you play a piece a few times, it’s still fun to play and you can still find new things in it. If it’s not really fun and has to be played the same way all the time, it doesn’t really get played. We kind of let it go.
JazzReview: That relates to something else I wanted to talk to you about. I read an article where you spoke about not writing out parts for your tunes - having the group learn things by ear and explaining things verbally. I’m interested in that in terms of the new record, whether there were parts for the guys and how much information you gave to the group.
Brad Shepik: I made parts [for this new recording]. They were like lead sheets. Since about 2000 that’s something that’s appealed to me: having a bunch of tunes that are easily played by a lot of different kinds of people. People that have basic jazz vocabulary. So that’s the way this has been working. That period (of not necessarily writing the music down) was more about The Commuters and Pachora. There were elements of that music that weren’t written down. We would just learn. The advantage to that is that you can almost get into a conversation quicker and start to stretch the thing quicker. I try to always have it memorized.
JazzReview: I wanted to ask you something about a tune on the Lingua Franca record, "Emerald." I’ve always been curious about this. You’ve got yourself over-dubbed on that piece playing two guitar parts at one point - comping and soloing. How do you decide which you’re going to record live with the rest of the group? Why choose one over the other? Because there are two different things that can happen: If you play the rhythm part while recording with the group through whole piece you’ll get a real nice interactive rhythm section thing to play against as a soloist. Or, you can do the solo track live with the group and get the interaction in that aspect.
Brad Shepik: I’m pretty sure I put the chords down afterward.
JazzReview: Because you wanted the conversational stuff happening from your soloing instead of from your rhythm section playing?
Brad Shepik: Yes. It was just a filler kind of thing.
JazzReview: I’m sure it would work just as well without chords behind it either.
Brad Shepik: Sure. Yeah, it was just to put a pad down.
azzReview: I can’t get enough of that tune. I love it.
Brad Shepik: I’m glad you’re playing it.
JazzReview: So you’ve played with Paul Motian’s Electric Bebop Band quite a ways back.
Brad Shepik: Yes.
JazzReview: Are you still in touch or playing with any of those guys?
Brad Shepik: Yes. I play with Steve Cardenas a lot in Joey baron’s band Killer Joey. I’ve been playing with them since about 2000. Tony Scherr plays bass. We have a lot of fun. I still know everyone from the band. When I was in the group Jerome Harris was doing it. I haven’t seen them live in a while though.
JazzReview: I wanted to talk to you about education in jazz. People have a lot of different feelings about that. You teach at New England Conservatory (NEC), right?
Brad Shepik: Yes.
JazzReview: I’m interested in your thoughts about teaching jazz in school. I think it’s great and totally valid, but I know that there are people who argue that it’s somehow bad for the music or not a reasonable proposition.
Brad Shepik: Well, I don’t know how you could say it doesn’t make sense. If you look around at who’s really playing great these days and who’s out there and making records and doing really cool stuff, they all went to some school or another. As far as how I feel about it as a teacher: I love it. I’m having a ball. I have really inspired, motivated, and interesting people that I get to work with at NEC. I have a lot of respect for them.
JazzReview: There are a lot of other really great artists teaching there as well. It seems like a really great place to be - on both sides.
Brad Shepik: Yes. I think the students there are pretty lucky. It’s a real good vibe up there. I like being involved with it. I’ve been teaching on my own since the 90’s, but more since 2000. The more that I do it, the more I enjoy it and the better player I am.
JazzReview: It’s just that I’ve had conversations about it with people who say it’s bad for the music or the student, and not something that can be taught in a ‘classroom.’ They try to make an argument that you shouldn’t go to school; you should just play and get a private teacher that you like outside of academia. But I don’t really see how that’s different. Because if you’re in school, you’ve got a teacher just like on the ‘outside.’ Why does it have to be different? How is it different?
Brad Shepik: Also, at the schools that’s where all the really hungry, young players are going too. So you’re going to find lots of people to play and hook up with. It’s where a lot of relationships get started. So it just makes sense.
JazzReview: It’s just another angle to get to the same thing.
Brad Shepik: I’m just saying that the best parts of jazz education are what happens in the mixing between students and students, and between students and their teachers who are actually playing--the ones who aren’t just teaching, but who are actually out there playing.
JazzReview: I think that’s a big point that a lot of people who say they think it’s not a good thing are missing. I went through the school thing and I’ve got a lot of friends who’ve gone through a lot of different schools, jazz education stuff, and I know that all the best schools that are teaching this stuff, about half of the faculty are professional players out there doing it. So it’s not like you’re not getting any advice from the horses mouth, from the source.
Brad Shepik: Yeah. That being said, you can go to any school and nothing is going to make you a player. That’s just normal. It takes a lot of work, focus, dedication, and love. You have to really love it in the end. It’s just like life. Nothing comes handed to you on a plate. There’s no knowledge that gets passed on at school that doesn’t require some effort. So I don’t buy into the whole ‘education is bad’ argument. It just depends on how you go about it. Anything can be bad. I just went up to NEC Thursday. I did a whole day of teaching and since I had to stay overnight to audition new students the next day, and I’m so into my students, we had a session that night just playing guitars - me and a few students. I get as much out of doing something like that, probably more to be honest, as the students. It just depends how you do it.
JazzReview: I agree. Did you have the same kind of trajectory a lot of electric guitarists around our age have in that you kind of started out listening and playing rock/blues oriented things and gradually became more interested in jazz later?
Brad Shepik: Sort of. There was a guitar in our house my dad played. I started picking it up around the age of 10 and strumming around with it. Then I started playing the alto saxophone in the school band when I was around 11. I continued with the saxophone in the school band through High School, but I was getting pretty serious about the guitar. I remember in junior high, I was about 14, we had a band and had sessions at my house. We’d play "Cheap Sunglasses" and Van Halen tunes. And I remember saying, "Ok. Now let’s play ‘Mack The Knife,’" and I’d take out my alto and we’d play that. I liked both. I remember taking out Bird (Charlie Parker) records and not really getting them. Not really digging it until later. But I remember listening to them in my early teens. But I definitely played rock music and had garage bands.
JazzReview: Your not getting Bird right away reminds me of the first time I heard Pat Metheny’s Travels. I couldn’t get into it. Just didn’t like it at all. So I gave it to a good friend of mine. He gave it back to me a couple days later and told me I had to keep it because I was going to really be into it and I should listen to it again. And this friend of mine wasn’t even a musician - didn’t play anything at all. I was like, yeah, whatever, and just put it away. About a year later I sat down and listened to it and it blew my mind.
Brad Shepik: Yeah. Pat Metheny is pretty good man (laughs). Sometimes you’re just not ready for it. For me, I was really into Louis Armstrong, just about 3-4 of his records. And I don’t know how but I started to hear the early Bird stuff and Joe Pass. Then I was able to get into Miles Davis’ Seven Steps To Heaven period and you start reading about the music in the magazines and start going to check it all out. That’s how it sort of unfolded for me. But I was always playing those two instruments through school.
JazzReview: So do you still get to play a lot of gigs in or around New York?
Brad Shepik: Well, I’m on the road around 3-4 months a year. But sure, I play in N.Y. when I’m not on the road. There’s a lot of venues to play at in Brooklyn now. Last weekend I played at The School For Improvised Music which has a space in Park Slope. Then I went up the street and saw Tim Berne, David Torn, and Tom Rainey after my gig was over. They tore the roof off the Tea Lounge which is also in Park Slope. Then two nights later Ben Monder was playing with his trio. I almost made that but didn’t quite, but he was playing in the neighborhood. Couple nights after that I went and saw a couple friends play at Barbes, also in the neighborhood.
JazzReview: That’s a good place to be.
Brad Shepik: Yes. It’s kind of neat. Some of those gigs I don’t even have to drive to.
JazzReview: Well Brad, that’s all I got right now.
Brad Shepik: Alright John. Nice talking to you. Thank you for wanting to do the interview. I look forward to it.