Guitarist Brad Shepik has admitted that a strictly musical approach to environmental issues may not be as persuasive as a song that can speak directly to specific problems with its lyrics. Nevertheless, his Human Activity Suite, a series of world music pieces intermixed with pieces highlighting the causes and effects of global climate change, is a powerful call for awareness, unity and action. It inspires with a universal glow rarely touched by song.
Commissioned by Chamber Music America and premiered in New York City in 2008, the suite employs Shepik's electric and acoustic guitars along with his more exotic tambura and electric saz, plus trumpet, organ, accordion, bass and drums, in an international mix meant both to represent the seven continents separately and fuse themand their peopleinto a single planet faced with a collective problem. The well-traveled Shepik has drawn on his knowledge of various indigenous musics to construct the stages on which his versatile, accomplished musicians can improvise. The result comes off as intended: it's a passionate, if indirect, message album, flavorful in its spicy blend of world music performed within the jazz idiom.
While the record abounds with blasts of power, Shepik's compositional touch is light. He relies on the musicians around him to fill the skeletons of his global constructs rather than orchestrating anthemic calls-to-action in the mode of, say, Charlie Haden and Carla Bley's revolution records, including Liberation Music Orchestra (Impulse!, 1969), The Ballad of the Fallen (ECM, 1982) and Not in Our Name (Verve, 2005)). Gary Versace's accordion adds an appropriate Peruvian feel to "Lima (South America)" and a sense of the exotic (at least for Western ears) to "Blue Marble (Africa)" and "Waves (Asia)." Trumpeter Ralph Alessi supplies not only the expected blasts of angry torment, but mournful, dying wails as well. Shepik's guitars range from John McLaughlin-esque power surges ("Blindspot (North America)") to wire-tight lines ("Not So Far (Australia)") to warm, single-note runs ("Carbonic").
While Shepik means for his suite to be unifying, he also means serious businessthis ain't "Kum Ba Yah." The stakes are never higher than on "Blindspot (North America)" and "Waves (Asia)." The former grows from an eerie electronic creep into an all-out storm of American noise that is at once thrilling and terrifying. The latter ends the suite with a space-age tsunami that seems to look east for the rise of an exhilarating future that could represent salvation or destruction. Shepik is making it clear that the choice belongs to the global community. And the record itself provides a great example for a way forward: none of the players' artistry or technical wizardry is sacrificed to achieve the group's mission, but is the very stuff that makes that mission achievable.
Lima (South America); Blindspot (North America); Human Activity; Stir (Antarctica); Not So Far (Australia); Current; Carbonic; Blue Marble (Africa); By a Foot (Europe); Waves (Asia).
Brad Shepik: electric and acoustic guitars, tambura, electric saz; Ralph Alessi: trumpet; Gary Versace: piano, organ, accordion; Drew Gress: bass; Tom Rainey: drums.