A LOT OF MUSIC writers rely too much on the crutch of comparison: "Artist X sounds like Y mixed with a little early-period W and some post-rehab, acoustic Z." But I've got a worse problem, which is that too often I'm only able to describe music especially good musicby reference to what it doesn't sound like. Instead of articulating what's great about the stuff I like, I end up listing the ways it successfully avoids being the stuff I hateenumerating widespread, undesirable tendencies the music has managed to evade; the traits of lesser music that it closely resembles but somehow rises above.
It's a bad habit that I have to break. And I willjust as soon as I'm done writing about Brad Shepik. Because, really, it's impossible to talk about what Shepik is doing and how special it is without referencing everything he avoids, everything he's done away with. Shepik's 2003 trio record, Drip, has to be the most plainspoken, unshowy, earnest session I've ever heard on Knitting Factory Records. Nowhere here do you find the hipster sheen, the embrace of kitschy genres, the semi-ironical display of outrageously advanced klezmer chops, the loud preening, self-aware postmod parties of Sex Mob and the like. It's just Shepik playing his Chet Atkins-designed Gretsch Tennessean with the painted-on f-holes, laying down as pure and unaltered a tone as Tal Farlow or Jim Hall, with two similarly minded musicians in tow.
"I enjoy trying to do more with less," says Shepik. "I like the sound of my guitar. Sometimes the effects you put on it cover up what you're doing with your hands."
Not that Shepik is some kind of bow-tied retro guyfar from it. Since moving to New York in 1990, Shepik, who was born in Walla Walla and graduated from Juanita High School on the Eastside, has been part of a loose-knit, celebrated regiment of Seattle-bred players (including Briggan Krauss, Chris Speed, Jim Black, and others) who were central to developing and popularizing the virtuosic, genre-splitting Knitting Factory sound.
Shepik continues to participate in an array of fearsome Downtown bands, including Matt Darriau's Paradox Trio and Dave Douglas' Tiny Bell Trio. But with his own threesome, Shepik sought a different direction, away from the open structures and complex compositional parameters of those projects and back to something kind of resembling a jazz standard.
"Sometimes when you're playing in an open situation, it can be more programmed than when you're, like, playing a tune," he says, speaking by phone from Brooklyn. "I like the way standards can be played in different tempos, time signatures, and moods, using the same song to express completely different feelings. I wanted to have a book of tunes that allowed for that. I'm not really tired of listening to standards the way some people do them." Indeed Shepik did them quite memorably in the early '90s as part of drummer Paul Motian's Electric Bebop Band.
BUT SHEPIK ISN'T reaching back to Tin Pan Alley this time; instead he's trying to spring Tin Pan Alley forward. His charts employ uncommon forms and time signatures, while still drawing on the harmony of those old tunes, employing shades of the jazz vocabularynot to mention many other tongues. Eclecticism has become its own cliché, but Shepik, on Drip, shows himself to be one of the few players around who makes a coherent unity of his interestsupdated, odd-metered Wes Montgomery, slo-Sco blues, Eastern European folk riffs, unabashedly pretty, almost Metheny-esque melodiesall carried off with an inner integrity that makes these more meaningful than the usual hodgepodge of references. He's still got that awesome dexterity with serpentine Balkan power lines that you hear in the Paradox Trio, but, stripped here of distortion and artiness, it becomes a much more convincing expression. There's a genuineness to Shepik's playing that would strike you even if you just passed by the club in the street.
Along with Shepik for the tour are veteran drummer Tom Rainey (who appears on Drip) and rising star bassist Matt Penman, both of them acute listeners. "I want to work on that conversation that happens in a trio," says Shepik. Borrowing from this writer's own descriptive crutch, he adds: "It's not necessarily about laying down some heavy concept."
Brad Shepik Trio play Tula's at 9 p.m. Wed., Oct. 29-Fri., Oct. 31. $12. Part of the Earshot Jazz Festival.