Jazz Institute of Chicago

A Conversation with Brad Shepik

Brad Shepik: interview with Lazaro Vega

Guitarist Brad Shepik with Peter Epstein, saxophone; Michael Sarin, drums; and Fima Ephron, bass; play collective music founded in jazz and the blues yet influenced by folk music from Eastern Europe, The Middle East and North Africa. Prior to a concert appearance in Grand Rapids, on February 9, 2001, Shepik spoke with Blue Lake Public Radio's Lazaro Vega from his home in New York.

Is this band that you're touring with The Commuters?

It's the same concept but different guys. It's mostly guys from "The Well," [Ed: the CD on the Songlines label] with Mike Sarin on drums, Peter Epstein on saxophone, and Fima Ephron playing bass. So it is just a quartet. We're playing music from "The Loan" and "The Well" as well as new stuff that will probably be on our next disc.

Is there a cut off of any of your records that you find audiences have to hear at any concert that you do? Is there a signature song for this group?

People really like "The Water's Thirst" from "The Loan." They seem to like that one and also "The Seeress" and "Sazbek" from the first record, and I guess from the second record "The Zephyr," and "The Flower and the Bee."

With that group I try to write things that people remember, music that's melody-based in that way a folk song is melody-based. But, yeah, those are the songs people seem to remember. I don't know if they ask, they don't scream for them (laughs), but they ask, 'What was that tune that you played? and often it will be "The Water's Thirst" from the first record.

["The Well"] is a really good sounding record. I think it evolved nicely from the first record. It was recorded right after a tour so the band was really on the music. It was a really easy date: we recorded it all in about five hours. Pretty rare. Then I mixed it and made the sound as good as I could make it afterwards.

You know, I was listening to "The Seeress" and I'm wondering if that sound comes out of the oud tradition?

It's sort of based on the saz semai rhythm and the idea of it, which is a Turkish classical form. So that's probably the oud connection you hear because oud is an instrument that would play a saz emai, that's the form.

You know, I don't know what a saz is. Encountering you was the first I heard of that instrument. What is it?

It's a Turkish double-stringed lute with frets, but the frets are, well, there's extra ones to reflect the quartertones that are often played in Turkish music. Mine's a kind of modern one. It's electric and looks sort of like an electric guitar. It's solid body, but it plays great. It's a Turkish made instrument. I found it in Holland.

How is the saz different from the oud?

An oud is closer to a guitar. It's tuned in fourths, it has six double choruses often times, or five double choruses with a bass string on it. It has no frets at all, so it's really the piano of Arabic music.

I'm familiar with the oud recordings of Rabih Abu Khalil.

He's not really playing traditional music, he's sort of taking his Lebanese traditions that he grew up with, I guess, and combining it with jazz and mixing meters. A lot of his tunes will jump meters between phrases. So his music is really about the phrasing of it, and then it's modal improvisations based on those. But it's very not traditional, really.

I understand that; I love it though.

It's great, great stuff and it's a good band, they work together well. They have a good sound.

I think there's room for that in jazz, and I would call what you do jazz and I know maybe some critics or other people wouldn't. It seems the lines you're constructing in their overall design are very much out of the improvisational traditions in jazz, whereas some of the accents and the intricacies of the meter and the rhythm have a lot more to do with the cultures you're drawing upon. How do you feel about that?

I'm just curious about finding new ways to structure an improvisation. When I got involved playing in a couple of different groups, my exposure to the different dance rhythms—

In that wedding band, you mean?

Yes, the Gypsy saxophonist Yuri Yunakov's Bulgarian wedding band. That was really a seminal experience for me because we learned all the music by ear. It's faster than dance tempos, but it's based on dance rhythms. So from that I got an insider's view. Learning the music that way was really inspiring because, it's like, 'Hey, I can do that with my guys if the music was a certain way.' Like that's the way to transmit your music that's just as valid as writing out a chart.

Mingus seemed to have a lot of skill with it.

Sure. It's not really common these days. We try to do it as much as we can with Pachora. All of this stuff is memorized at some point, but when you actually learn it, that becomes part of it. I know that from Pachora, also with Paradox and with my group that's coming. We've done that, you know, learned a tune that way [by ear].

So it wasn't just the influence of the music of the other cultures that hit you, it was the process of making music.

Totally. I think some jazz music has lost that aspect of it, the sort of oral connection to the music, and it's become a rote thing that you learn in schools and stuff.

I definitely think what we're doing is jazz music, but rhythmically it's a little bit different. But I'm not trying to recreate any of these other music's from Macedonia or Yugoslavia or Bulgaria. If you listen to the music and compare it with music from those places, it doesn't really sound like that. I mix different rhythms and different harmonic ideas and put them together in a way that pleases me (laughs) basically.

It wasn't really preconceived in terms of how I put it together composing-wise; those were ideas that came out of being immersed in that music. Little sketches develop. A lot of them came from improvisations on the guitar, and many of them are guitar-based in that way—as opposed to piano.

The saz tunes are saz improvisations. "Sazdek" was the first tune I wrote on the saz right after I got it. When was that? In 1995 I got it, so I immediately started trying to make music with it, rather than get a teacher, get a book.

There are people out there. Whenever I'm in a situation where I can learn something from somebody I'll put myself in there. There are Turkish groceries in Cologne. There's this one street that sells, and there's a guy that plays there. So whenever I'm in Cologne and I have time I'll go down to his store. I'll ask to play a saz. He'll bring out a saz, and then I'll pick up little pointers just from seeing people play.

It's not a super-common instrument in New York, but there are guys that play oud in New York, and I'll go see those guys and learn things about what I can do technically on the guitar, how they make those sounds.

I think jazz music is at a place where it's not all about playing on changes. Playing on changes is a very small part of the history and evolution of music in the world, and jazz is open enough and strong enough to absorb music from the cultures of the world and still retain its fundamental identity of what jazz is. Would you care to respond to those thoughts?

The central thing for me is the improvisation, definitely. That's what keeps it alive and growing. I think there's kind of danger now because there's all these re-issues and I've seen so many things where the re-issues sell ten times more than any new artist. It's almost like the door is closed on what you can do and still have it be jazz in a certain marketplace kind of sense.

I buy lots of new records that my friends are on and that I'm curious about and want to check out. The improvisation is going to keep it alive and flowing and whatever it's called in the next century doesn't really matter, but I think it's very healthy and growing.

We're sort of back in the '40s again, at the time when moldy figs and the modernist boppers used to duke it out about what jazz was. We're there again. We went back to that ridiculous argument all over again, [Ed: only with today's version of old and new]. That's one way to read that, as a repeat of an historical cul-de-sac we don't really need to go down again, because ultimately the modern music of the '40s emerged as the standard. And that's happening again.

The things that have gone on are going to become standard. I mean Sunny Murray will someday be counted as the standard for freedom in jazz drumming, but there are forces in the way right now that have more to do with position and jobs than with the music's on-going evolution.

It seemed the musicians who paid attention to those developments were all in Europe, but now things are coming back. There's the group of musicians now in New York who you mention as friends, there's a whole bunch of things going on in Chicago that are un-categorical at this point. Some of them work and others are failures, but as Woody Allen says if you don't make mistakes once in awhile you're not being innovative enough.

Exactly.

There's quite a bit of artistic exploration and curiosity that's still going on. Like you said, though, the marketplace isn't really getting with that because it's focused on the past. But things go through cycles in jazz.

Yeah, totally. I totally agree.

What did Paul Motion think about that? Did Paul Motion talk about that when you were with him?

No, not really, I never really talked with him about that.

What were some of the things that you took away from your experience with him in terms of music?

Wow! Wow. He is one of the masters of doing so much with so little in terms of saying so much using very little—just a ride cymbal, snare drum and hi-hat—and be so complete and create such a story when he plays. His sense of time and swing and feel and everything, it was really a joy to play with him. I can't really say other than—I don't really have a lesson or anything that I learned—except that. I learned a lot.

Now I'm really fortunate to be playing with Joey Baron in his group [Name]. He's like the next generation of that because he's able to do so much, mix up so organically but in a radical new way. I read in one of his interviews that in the 60's the avant-garde was about freedom and going for it, playing high energy, all that stuff. And now he says maybe the avant-garde is more about making your thought process transparent. When I read that I was like, 'Wow, that's pretty heavy man.' I felt like it was an insight into his playing in a way that I hadn't really got before. I knew he tried to make things clear, but it just brought it home in a way.

It also translates clearly to the audience. He's thinking about the audience when he says that, right?

I don't think in a bad way. I think it's great. I've seen him play a solo concert for an hour and fifteen minutes and it's just like he had the whole place in the palm of his hand. You could hear a pin drop. I've never been at a concert where everybody was that attentive to every little nuance that he's doing. He really pulls you in.

As I get older I hope to learn how to do some of that, pulling people in.

So the audience does figure heavily in what you're doing.

It's making a story, telling a story completely, but, yeah, I want to play for people. I want people to come, hear, share and complete the circle of the creation.

I'm not talking about playing simple music just so that people will come hear it, I'm talking about trying to play (chuckles) and make my thoughts as clear as I can make them, and really mean what I'm saying. It's an endless journey.

Ultimately you're working at that from different fronts, I mean, from perfecting your instrumental technique to song writing to leading a band to stage presence. That's a life's work right there.

Yes it is it's huge.

I don't think I'm worried whether an audience is going to like it. All I worry about is doing what I want to do the very best that I think I can do. I have confidence in that drawing people in. I don't think I have to change myself for people to want to come hear me. It's more like; if I'm doing it well people will want to come hear it. That's what I've experienced. So I'm just trying to build on that aspect of it.

Cool. The only other question I have is when did you change your name [Ed: from "Schoeppach" to "Shepik"], and why did you do that?

When did I do it? I did it in 1997. There were a bunch of records coming out, I was on eight, and I had been thinking about it for a while. It was basically so that people could spell it and say it. We always said, "Shepik," and that's not really what the correct pronunciation of that name is. In Germany they say "Shoe-pock." It's actually a Swiss name that came to Germany.

Around that time I got a letter from somebody with that name that was doing genealogy on that name. He's from Switzerland and he told me the history of it. He sent a letter to all the people who have that name in the States, and he was surprised that not very many people in the States had changed it. Because he was curious to how they say it. Since then I've actually run across people with this new spelling that I have.

So it solved little things like that, but then it created this whole other thing: 'Are you the same guy that's on those first 'Tiny Bell' records [Ed: with Dave Douglas]?' What are you going to do?