Theoretically, it should be difficult to do protest music without lyrics; nevertheless, that hasn't stopped Terence Blanchard, Ben Allison, andmost recentlyJeff "Tain" Waits from launching heat-seeking discs aimed right at the heart of some of this decade's most sensitive political issues. Now it's guitarist Brad Shepik's turn at bat with Human Activity Suite, only he's done things a little differently.
While Allison's Cowboy Justice (Palmetto, 2006), Blanchard's A Tale of God's Will: Requiem for Katrina (Blue Note, 2007), and Tain's Watts (Dark Keys Music, 2009) focused on the micro level while sticking with particular people or events, Shepik's Chamber Music America-supported set examines both the macro and micro perspectives of global warming. The subject itself is obviously macro, but by dedicating each movement to one countryor to one aspect of climate changeShepik breaks things down from the global to the personal.
There's a faint dissonance under Drew Gress' bass solo at the front of "Lima (South America)." Shepik's guitar and Gary Versace's accordion place the problem at a distance, like a single rider on the horizon. By mid-tune, though, the full band is dancing in a Carnaval-by-the-sea mode, with Versace and Ralph Alessi soaking the proceedings in an intoxicating mariachi vibe. Shepik returns to this theme on "Waves (Asia)," only now there's an air of desperation about the dance, as well as a sense that the ocean by the beach seems a lot closer than it did before. The protagonists in "Blindspot (North America)" don't have time to dance... or think, because they're too busy hurrying to work, school, or whatever it is that drives them heedlessly forward.
In preparing for Human Activity, Shepik studied music indigenous to the continents he portrays; he's brought in instruments not often heard in jazz, his electric saz brings a mournful mood to "Currents" that intensifies the feeling of a lifeless desert stretching into the distance. His tambura on "Stir (Antarctica)" combines with Alessi's horn and Gress' bass to simulate a plodding polar bear watching his ice floe disappear inch by inch. However, Human Activity is not "World music" per se, since Shepik filters this international knowledge through a New York perspective that's aggressive from the jump.
Whether they're electric or acoustic, European or Middle Eastern, Shepik's solos almost always go for the throat, just like all these challenging compositions. That musical belligerence seems to have possessed Alessi, whose solos are higher and wilder than anything on his most recent recordings. Conversely, Gress seems right at home, serving up the weightlifter-strong foundation he's become famous for. With all that, it's Versace's unbelievable keyboard work that brings Human Activity together; his hymn-like organ on "Stir" evokes the majesty of ancient glaciers, while his piano on "Carbonic" dances with the joy of life. Some say global warming is a false issue, though some sopping wet polar bears disagree. Human Activity Suite doesn't mince words or parse political stances. Instead, it takes one uncompromising stance: Don't just sit there... do something!
Personnel: Brad Shepik: electric & acoustic guitars, tambura, electric saz; Ralph Alessi: trumpet; Gary Versace: piano, organ, accordion; Drew Gress: bass; Tom Rainey: drums.