Bob Sheppard: The Clark Kent of Jazz

Jim Worsley By

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Jazz musicians have this built in philosophy of not wanting to repeat themselves. Repeating ourselves is one of our biggest fears. —Bob Sheppard
An unassuming bespectacled man in his mid-sixties walks on to the stage. In a band with stellar, famous, and maybe flashier musicians, one could be forgiven if they didn't even notice him right away. But as soon as Bob Sheppard presses a saxophone, clarinet, or flute onto his lips, he is super, man! An incredible musician and composer, Sheppard has long been revered by his peers. In addition to his own music, he has long been a first-call studio musician with a resume that will knock your socks off. His playing has been known to do that as well!

In addition to playing on well over one hundred movie and television soundtracks, his resume includes, but is not limited to, Chick Corea, Freddie Hubbard, Herbie Hancock, Peter Erskine, Joni Mitchell, Mike Stern, Steely Dan, Billy Childs, John Beasley, Chris Botti, Bill Cunliffe, Kenny Barron, Michael Buble, Ray Charles, Stanley Clarke, Leonard Cohen, George Duke, Rita Coolidge, Scott Henderson, Rickie Lee Jones, Jeff Lorber, Joe LaBarbera, The Manhattan Transfer, Bette Midler, Dianne Reeves, Lee Ritenour, David Sanborn, Boz Scaggs, Arturo Sandoval, Rod Stewart, the Brecker Brothers, and Neil Young, just to name a zillion. I list so many names to help make a point. Although, as already stated, he is basically an icon himself within the industry, his name mysteriously has remained under the radar on an overall basis to the general population. It can be traced to Sheppard's lack of concern over fame and notoriety. He cares deeply about the music, his collaborators, and is completely at service to the compositions. Having his name up in lights has never been his goal.

With his many accomplishments, superior talent, and connectivity to jazz greatness, Sheppard is a man worthy of taking a few minutes to get to know. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to do just that and am pleased to be able to share it with you.

All About Jazz: As much as you have had a long and impressive career in jazz, Bob, your resume is genre deep.

Bob Sheppard: I should say that my main goal always is to be a good jazz player and become a better jazz player. I have always done that. My musical path has turned out to be different than a lot of others. I have always worn many hats to try to make a living in the music business. Over the years good things have happened to me because of reputation and being in the right place. My middle-class background comes in to play in that I have played many styles of music and took many jobs with the understanding of hard work and doing what you need to do to make a living. But it all ultimately supported my jazz habit. I am a jazz musician and feel very fortunate to have played with a lot of amazing people. Are you familiar with David Binney, the great alto player?

AAJ: Indeed. Yes.

BS: He is a good friend of mine and we were in Krasnodar, Russia at a festival a few years back. I was hired to play with a big band, and he was there playing with Antonio Sanchez. We were just hanging out having a beer and he asked me about how I was able to be a jazz musician and to do all this movie soundtrack and Hollywood industry stuff. You know it occurred to me that I had never thought of it that way. That I didn't really try to do any of it. I didn't have a clear and defined path that I followed. Some people, a lot of people, have a goal and they stick with it. Such as that they are going to be a leader, have their own band, and put out jazz records along the way. To become their own jazz entity. I have had a lot of friends, guys like Bob Berg or Mike Stern or others right down the line, that had a vision for being a jazz artist and a leader. That was all they focused on. For me, because of circumstances, I became more like a worker bee. I did a lot of different things and was able to make a nice living doing that. But I realized that I wasn't putting enough energy into focusing on being a jazz musician. I never committed to doing my own thing because I was always busy doing things with other people, whether it be Chick Corea, Freddie Hubbard, or Herbie Hancock or many others, I was kept very busy. It just evolved that way, so I didn't put out a lot of records. Now I have to catch up (with a laugh).

AAJ: The Fine Line (Challenge Records, 2019) is your most recent effort in that quest. What can you tell us about that project?

BS:Thanks for asking about that. It happened by circumstances. Seems that most things do. Not necessarily a lot of forethought. A friend of mine, that is a bassist in Holland, had a production deal with a European label and we hooked it up. I wrote some tunes and its sort of as simple as that.

AAJ: The bassist you refer to is Jasper Somsen , yes?

BS: Jasper, yes.

AAJ: You also have John Beasley on board, who I know you have worked with extensively over the years. Was this your first collaboration with Somsen, as well as with drummer Kendrick Scott?

BS: Yes, it is. Kendrick is one of my favorite drummers and I really wanted to bring in someone from New York. Fortunately, he was available, and it worked out for me to fly him out to Los Angeles and be able to work together on this deal.

AAJ: That seems like a clever idea since you had a bassist from another part of the world and you and Beasley here on the west coast, to bring the east coast feel to the mix.

BS: Yeah and you know a drummer like Kendrick will shape the music and make it all happen. Beasley is a genius. I've played with him just about as much as anyone I could think of. He has played on my records, I have played on his records, we played together with Freddie Hubbard's band. So, we have a great connection. Having John around is such a comfort. Someone I can really rely upon musically. I just love his sensibilities. It turned out to be a nice combination of guys to make something cool out of the tunes I wrote.

AAJ: There's a new-found chemistry here. It has an invigorating tone to it. Did you find playing with this ensemble to have a unique energy and cool vibe to interact with?

BS: Oh, without a doubt. It had a feeling about it. I don't have a set band. I never have. I like playing with a lot of different players. I like to change things up. Even around town when I book a gig. I never know who I am going to call. Never sure who I am going to feel like playing with that night. I like the music to take on its own shape depending on the musicians' that are there. I like that idea. That to me is the essence of jazz.

AAJ: Well, yeah with the improvisational manner of jazz that makes a lot of sense. I can understand why you would dig doing it that way.

BS: Yeah, it's the nature of what we do. That's why we can play all over the world with different musicians. We speak the same language. I like that. I'm not locked into a preconceived way that I need to hear my music. For this record I was trusting that it would be a nice chemistry and I think I was right.

AAJ: I would have to agree. Just a couple of years ago you were part of a quartet that released the live record, From the Hip (BFM Jazz, 2013). With you and David Kikoski it was another grouping with great chemistry. You had, of course, played with both members of the rhythm section, bassist David Carpenter and drummer Gary Novak in previous ensembles.

BJ: Yes, that was an interesting deal. Kikoski was the leader on that. It was part of the pre-arranged set ups that producer George Klabin ( president of the Rising Stars Jazz Foundation and Resonance Records) was doing at the time. He would record with a live audience in his private studio. I knew Dave from New York and had played with him two or three times in different situations. Carpenter was probably the catalyst in getting the right band together. George knew all of us and so was good to go. Interestingly that recording sat around for some time. After Carpenter sadly passed away, I was listening to the recording. I hadn't really listened to it much prior to that, and it occurred to me that it was a really good recording. That this needed to be put out as a record. So that's what we did. Thankfully BFM Jazz was nice enough to put it out for us.

AAJ: It has a great flow. You all shared the space beautifully. Were you having as much fun on that one as it sounds like?

BJ: Oh yeah, David Kikoski is sort of a force of nature. He is a genius jazz musician. All of us were just sort of like hold on, here we go, hold on for your lives and away we went. It was really fun, and I felt really comfortable up there on the stage. A very nice sounding space.

AAJ: It has a very different feel to it than The Fine Line. Clearly, as you have stated, mixing it up conceptually with fresh ideas is a motivating factor in your approach to most everything you do.

BJ: Absolutely. In a micro way and a macro way, jazz musicians have this built in philosophy of not wanting to repeat themselves. Repeating ourselves is one of our biggest fears. That goes into our own personal way of playing. Trying to find a new vocabulary and new ways to play. I think we all share that kind of value system of creating new ways and new approaches.

AAJ: You all put in some clever and personal touches to the well-chosen standards. No arrangements, clearly very improvisational, any rehearsal at all or just completely off the cuff?

BJ: There were no rehearsals at all. We just made a list of tunes that we all knew and made a setlist and started playing. That's the way it happens a large percentage of the time. Even on a large scale. Playing with Herbie Hancock was that way. They were mostly his tunes of course. But still it was just jumping in and playing them. You get up on stage and blow. We know the language, so we don't want to talk about it that much. We want things to happen organically. It does take the right combinations and trust in the musicians you are playing with. The chemistry creates the music. You change one player and the entire deal changes. The chemistry is different, so the music is different. Then too, the more you play with someone the possibilities of that chemistry become even greater. Sometimes you can have musicians that are just stylistically or conceptually different and it just doesn't work. They may all be great musicians, but if the chemistry isn't there it just doesn't work. For example, there's a reason why Elvin Jones, McCoy Tyner, and Jimmy Garrison sounded great together. They stayed together because there was such an amazing connection. Miles Davis and his bandmates, same thing. You find the connection and you don't want to lose it. The other side of the coin though, too, is that some of my favorite records are ones where we just experimented playing with some different guys and you get lucky and find something that really works. But it can just as easily go the other way.



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