The three individuals making up Believers are each highly respected musical voices in their own right. Percussionist John Hadfield
has performed and recorded with the likes of Nguyen Le
and released an inspired duo EP with woodwind autodidact Lenny Pickett
, called Heard by Others
(Orenda Records, 2020). Sam Minaie
, on the other hand, has played bass for household names such as piano virtuoso Tigran Hamasyan
and the charming jazz-pop icon Melody Gardot
. Which brings us to the last protagonist completing the trio. Brad Shepik
's work over the past thirty years has gained quite the reputation in the world of guitarists and modern jazz aficionados alike. Specifically those who are prone to the world music-infused variety of creative music. The guitarist's past decade oeuvre as a leader includes the hopping straight-ahead organ trio date Top Down
(JLC Records, 2016) featuring Gary Versace
and Mark Ferber
. In Believers, the three come together to combine their strengths and offer a modern vision of the world music possibilities in a jazz trio context.
Each player brings one or more original compositions to the table, which are joined by the Armenian traditional "Mona Mona" as closer and two Ralph Towner
compositions from the guitarist's extensive catalogue. Shepik studied composition with Towner in the '80s while attending Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle. He owes his mentor a lot, and the Alternative Guitar Summit honoring Ralph Towner in 2019 coincidentally represents the occasion of Believer's inception. "Ralph's music had a huge influence on my playing and writing [...]. For the concert I wanted to highlight how Ralph's music could work in a guitar trio format since much of his music is written for solo guitar or the incredible quartet, Oregon." Shepik continues to explain: "I had played for a few years with both John and Sam in different situations, but they had yet to meet or play together. I felt they would really hit it off musically and this would be a great opportunity. We performed "The Sigh" and "Water Wheel" at the concert for Ralph on March 24, 2019. As soon as we started playing, I immediately knew that I wanted to try playing our original music with this trio. Within weeks we found ourselves in the studio, recording what would become this album."
The two Towner compositions performed live are the ones that have ended up on the album, paired together as its centerpiece. Originally a classical guitar and synthesizer exercise found on Towner's solo outing (at times sparsely accompanied by Peter Erskine
) Open letter
(ECM, 1992), "The Sigh" turns into a mesmerizing rumination between cymbal rain, bass solo and harmonically framing electric guitar arpeggios. Like Ralph Towner, Shepik doesn't refrain from using guitar overdubs throughout the album and especially so here. Which however begs the question, whether further overdubs are absolutely necessary when already enhancing a guitar solo piece to a trio arrangement. The layers of overdubbing are less obtrusive on "Waterwheel," giving Shepik's spicy overdriven guitar lines the focus they need to make their mark.
Hadfield's contributions belong among the more rhythmically engaging cuts of the spectrum. First ostinato-based, then loudly improvised, "Seven Crotales" unveils groovy bass lines and spacey guitar work which is elaborated on again later, throughout "Nomadic Days." Here an ostinato-vamp meets lush guitar spreads and percussive juggling by Hadfield. Plus, guitar overdubs.
Shepik-penned "Rêve Pour Louis" is a hypnotizing meditation based on a major root with pentatonic colorations spreading through the room like tiny particles, set in motion by a soft breeze. One is reminded of Shepik's ambitious Human Activity Suite
(Songlines, 2009) here and elsewhere on the album, especially when the individual parts of the trio grow into one single motion, propelling the trio forward through different sound spheres with conviction and authenticity. On "Baraye Shoma," bass and guitar join forces in a unison exercise that uses vocabulary reminiscent of the Arabic maqams. The irregular structure and linear movements of the piece recall the manner with which other contemporary jazz artists integrate Middle Eastern and Asian dogmas in a Western jazz environment, as can be found in much of guitarist Rez Abbasi
's genre-bending experimentations.
There's a lot to marvel at on Believer's self-titled debut record. Within the expansive canon of world music-meets-jazz studies that have been explored many times over the past decades, the trio is still able to find its own voice and introduce a unique perspective on how to merge these different musical worlds and influences. At the end one can't help but wonder, whether a more organic sound and conservative recording situation with less post- production would have given the set even more liveliness. But maybe that's something that could be explored on a follow-up album?
Seven Crotales; Baraye Shoma; Nomadic Days; The Sigh; Waterwheel; Rêve Pour Louis; Fractured Water; Mona Mona.