The term "world music gets bantered around frequently these days, referring (among many other things) to anyone who integrates any kind of ethnic folk music into a larger musical concept. But there's really nothing new about the idea of cross-cultural blends from a jazz perspective. Even before groups like Oregon, guitarist John McLaughlin's Shakti, and ECM artists like saxophonist Jan Garbarek began fusing diverse cultural influences, jazz absorbed Afro-Cuban influences in the late '50s and the popular music of Brazil in the '60s. Jazz has always represented a kind of melting pot of ideas, but arguably never more so than in recent years, when an ever-shrinking world has resulted in a more drastic dissolve of borders than ever before.
And while jazz has always been a cosmopolitan affair, an album like Lingua Franca probably could not have been made even as recently as twenty years ago. Guitarist Brad Shepik has carved a particular place for himself, examining the juncture of Balkan/Eastern European music with an improvisational aesthetic on his own records and with others, including trumpeter Dave Douglas' Tiny Bell Trio. Saxophonist Peter Epstein may be considered part of the jazz avant-garde, but he also demonstrated a firm grasp of Portuguese music on Nascer and Bach on Solus (MA Recordings, 2001 and 1999), in addition to other projects that incorporate Indian and West African influences. Percussionist Matt Kilmer is the least known of the three, but his clear grasp of a host of percussion instruments demonstrates an equally broad viewpoint.
But while interaction and improvisation make Lingua Franca categorically a jazz recordwhatever that meansthere's nary a hint of the more acknowledged tradition to be found. It doesn't swing in the commonly accepted sense of the word, although the grooves certainly do in a broader sense; and there's precious few of the harmonic devices one normally associates with jazz, although Shepik and Epstein clearly possess the kind of extensive command of their instruments to suggest they've spent considerable time in that space.
Many of Lingua Franca's nine compositionsby either Shepik or Epsteinrevolve around hypnotic, almost mantra-like lines and grooves, although there's plenty of rhythmic and melodic variation to prevent the whole thing from becoming nothing more than a trance-inducing confection. From the reggae rhythm of "Sunrise to the more blues-based "Miro which, if it weren't for Kilmer's hand percussion, could easily be an up-tempo funk numberand the raga-like "Two Door, Lingua Franca covers a lot of territory. And despite its avoidance of overt jazziness, Shepik's "Kumanovo could easily be seen interpreted in another context as a dark modal ballad.
Strong playing pervades the record, but Shepik's ability to create a surprisingly orchestral palettesometimes with subtle use of electronics, other times completely organicallyis what makes Lingua Franca so successful. Too eclectic to ever reach mainstream acclaim, Shepik has nevertheless had a career without misstep, and Lingua Franca is yet another reason to keep a watchful eye.
Visit Brad Shepik, Peter Epstein, and Matt Kilmer on the web.