Jan 20 2016
Scott Jeppesen – Wonders
There’s something intriguingly elusive about the emotional tones Scott Jeppesen uses to color the compositions on his 2015 release Wonders. Causation can be traced back to the saxophonist’s talent at working the thin divide between smile and somber, light-as-a-feather blues and its weight-of-the-world counterpart. It’s why so many of his melodies step right up to immediately engage with a cheerful announcement of “I’m here!” while simultaneously providing a strong indication that a greater depth lies below the surface of the warm welcome. It’s the kind of thing that keeps a listener hanging on, buying time while sussing out all the pertinent details. But more on that later. For now, the first thing to note about opening track “Hanging Gardens (Of Babylon)” is that it’s the first in a series of tracks that grasp at the album theme of the Seven Ancient Wonders of the World.
The opening salvo is purely modern post-bop, though the warmth it develops has a classic 1960s hard bop quality to it that’s simple to embrace. The melody isn’t complicated or fussy, nor does it serve as a thesis statement in support of the album theme. It grabs the attention and holds it tight. There’s an abundance of cheerfulness, but also more than a hint of introspection. It’s carried along by a rhythm section that scoots ahead with a friendly chatter that’s no less arresting than the melody. And nothing about any of it really speaks to the majesty of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. But when the quintet sighs out the drop-dead lovely melody of “The Marble Tomb” and follows it up with solos that possess the flickering beauty of a city skyline at night, this, too, doesn’t elicit the imagery of the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus. It certainly doesn’t matter. Not when the music is this good. I like a nifty theme or concept album as much as the next listener, but mostly I want well-crafted melodies, a rhythm section that knows how to set them to motion, and I want it gift-wrapped in some harmonic action that fits perfectly to the shape of the song. On Wonders, Jeppesen does this to a tee, and that’s where to find the source of awe and inspiration on this winning album.
The contrast between the pulsing tempo of “Colossus (of Rhodes)” and the gentle cooing of its melody is a positively magnetic song intro, and that Jeppesen then flips the script and lights a fire under the melody and has the rhythm section take a turn at being the patient one just makes the tune even more arresting. Keyboard effects give a space-y vibe to “Last Man Standing (Great Pyramid Of Giza)” and the walking bassline of “Big Daddy (Statue Of Zeus At Olympia)” adds something familiar to something new, but mostly this is just more of the good stuff provided by the opening track. Something new, however, can be found in the alluring “A Guiding Light (Lighthouse Of Alexandria),” with its curiously loping tempo and slow exhalation of melody.
The concluding chapters of the album are best exemplified by “Hubris,” a song that is emblematic of the album’s ambiguous emotional textures and its penchant for enchanting melodies talked up by rhythms that know how to carry a conversation.
There’s never enough space to fit all the top albums of a particular year on a year-end Best Of list. Wonders is yet another example of an exceptional recording that probably didn’t get as much attention as it deserved.
Your album personnel: Scott Jeppesen (tenor sax, melodica), Larry Koonse (guitar), Josh Nelson (piano, keyboards), Dave Robaire (bass), Don Schnelle (drums) and guest: Bob Sheppard (tenor sax).
This Self-Produced album was released in 2015 on Jeppesen’s Creative Bottle Music label.
On his site, Jeppesen gives a pretty decent rundown of his insights and thoughts about the Wonders project on a wonder-by-wonder basis. Definitely worth checking out (LINK). Plus, he’s got additional music embedded throughout. This is an example of where the concept of liner notes can flourish in the internet age.
Jazz from the L.A. scene.
Scott Jeppesen – El Guapo
Much in the same way that the musical quality of Jeppesen’s Wonders made irrelevant the fact that the theme didn’t really translate into the finished product, really, the same could be said of Jeppesen’s El Guapo. The Spanish theme is evident right from the outset via the Latin Jazz rhythm from bassist Dave Robaire and drummer Don Schnelle given added color by Larry Koonse’s acoustic guitar action, it doesn’t really scream “This Is A Latin Jazz Recording.” But when an ensemble is able to generate the friendly tone and infectious liveliness as they do immediately on opening track “El Guapo,” as a listener, seriously, who really cares if the music fits a particular mold or meets the creator’s intent. And when it melts into a gorgeous track like “Elms,” which, as with the title-track, exudes certain Latin Jazz qualities while maintaining a flight path over the heart of straight-ahead modern jazz, again, just sit back, listen, and appreciate the little sonic gift being given. Because it is.
The arrival of “Great Odin’s Raven” pretty much cements this album’s roots as belonging to those of modern post-bop, and its wide smile of a melody and boisterous solos as engaging as a raconteur’s best anecdotal material is a conspicuous amount of evidence that Jeppesen and crew really know how to put together a solid modern jazz post-bop recording. Jeppesen’s way with the tunes, how his lyricism possesses both weight and substance while threading the needle between blues-make-me-happy and no-hurt-like-the-blues is a quality that should never be overlooked or under-admired. It’s not easy ground to tread, and it’s not often done with such an absorbing tunefulness. The egregiously under-the-radar UK pianist and composer Julian Joseph would be a bird of a feather in this regard, but it’s not something often encountered on a recording that sticks to jazz’s standard avenues and thoroughfares. The upbeat “I Tend To Agree” hits this sweet spot, too, though more subtly as it trades some of the nuance for an extra dose of heat. A similarly successful trade-off is made on “Maybe Later,” though in this instance, the net gain is a contemplative tone and a gathering of shadows to mute the album’s sunny disposition.
It’s the kind of thing that lets a musician get away with inserting some iffy mainstream groove action into the middle of “Overlapping Conversations.” As a stand-alone track, it’s easily dismissed. But in the flow of the album’s songs, on an album where the nuance exploited within the expanse of a melody’s emotional spectrum is focused squarely on the divide between joy and pain, light and dark, this approach to the music eclipses the measure of its cohesiveness to the entirety of the album. Besides, when Jeppesen digs right back into the heart of this recording with “Hidden,” the sense of logic returns full circle to the first, and ultimately, last impression.
Released back in 2013, this solid recording definitely deserves another turn in the spotlight.
Your album personnel: Scott Jeppesen (saxophones, bass clarinet), Larry Koonse (guitars), Josh Nelson (piano, keyboards), Dave Robaire (bass), Don Schnelle (drums) and guest: John Daversa (trumpet, flugelhorn).
This Self-Produced album was released in 2013 on Jeppesen’s Creative Bottle Music label.
Check out more about the album at the artist site.
Jazz from the L.A. scene.