Jazz Album of the Week: Saxophonist Bob Sheppard Shows The Fine Line Between Levittown and LA

Jul 22, 2019

Monday, July 22, 2019. Hollywood, California and Levittown, Pennsylvania don't have much in common, though both can stake a claim to saxophonist Bob Sheppard, who's recently released his fifth album as a leader, The Fine Line.

Since graduating from Eastman and heading west, the Bucks County native has applied the type of blue-collar mentality more frequently associated with his hometown to cultivate the kind of West Coast career that requires talent, versatility, and, above all, hard work.

Sheppard teaches (USC Thornton), has toured with mega-acts like Chick Corea and Steely Dan, and is one of the Hollywood industry's more in-demand studio musicians, having played on soundtracks for films like Jerry Maguire, Leaving Las Vegas, and Forrest Gump.

Though after listening to The Fine Line, it's hard not to suspect that the other components of his career are but a means to passion projects like these. An arrangement of Linda Creed and Thom Bell's "People Make the World Go 'Round"? From a kid who came of age in Bucks County when Philly Soul reigned supreme? Yeah, this is the real stuff.

That tune, written by Creed and Bell for The Stylistics, is given the cool jazz, noir-ish treatment here and is a reimagining, tailor-made for the late Jeff Duperon's Jukebox Jazz show if ever there were one.

The thoughtful arrangement does justice to the subtextual quality of the original, and is an appropriate remake for our times. Sheppard captures the tenor of the tune perfectly on his tenor, delicately splitting the difference between lamentation and resignation. Meanwhile Benjamin Shepherd knows his job is to bring sufficient funk on electric bass to raise the spirits of TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia). I never thought I'd quote George W. Bush, but dare I say: Mission accomplished.

For a change of pace, try the album's opener, "Edge of Trouble," a cut I enjoy more and more with each listen. Sheppard lays the groundwork with an intricate, Middle Eastern-tinged theme, played with a facility and sensibility on soprano saxophone that recalls Jeff Coffin's genre-bending soprano work with Bela Fleck and the Flecktones.

Simon Moullier is bordering on brilliant guesting on vibes here, first sticking to Sheppard's complex hook like Peter Pan's shadow, then soloing as the perfect foil to the acidity of Sheppard's saxophone.

Moullier re-appears on "Joegenic," Sheppard's tribute to tenor sax great Joe Henderson, and "Maria's Tango," a slower-paced Latin American sorbet of sorts, best used as a palate cleansing course between higher-octane offerings.

Also noteworthy are the title track, a Brazilian-style tune featuring Sheppard on flute and his wife on vocals, and Sheppard's arrangements of two standards: Billy Strayhorn's "A Flower is a Lovesome Thing" and Rodgers and Hart's "I Didn't Know What Time it Was."

On the former, Sheppard confirms the veracity of his friend, colleague, and former Weather Report drummer Peter Erskine who has called Sheppard "One of the great tenor players of our time."

The latter, played as a waltz, makes one wonder how Erskine neglected to mention Sheppard's soprano playing, which is emboldened here by John Beasley's fantastic accompaniment and commensurate artistry on his own expansive solo.

Not to be excluded are bassist and co-producer Jasper Somsen and, arguably, the backbone of this entire project, the fantastic Kendrick Scott, who is at the peak of his powers on "Edge of Trouble," where his playing reminds me an awful lot of Gregory Hutchinson's on Joshua Redman's newest album.

They're all listening to each other; you should be listening, too.