One of the characteristics shared by most of my favorite jazz musicians is versatility. They have “big ears” in their musical interests as well as in their playing environments.
If you look at the list of guitarist Brad Shepik’s recording credits, you’ll see everything from nearly straight ahead jazz to music heavily influenced by Middle Eastern and European folk music. And then there’s the Tiny Bell Trio.
Led by trumpeter Dave Douglas, the trio’s combination of horn, guitar, and drums (the phenomenal Jim Black) made for some unique and open music. By ‘open’ I’m referring to the large amount of space in the music. While the “idea density” is quite high, each player seems to know when to lay back, allowing for a maximum of subtle interplay.
Live in Europe finds Shepik and his bandmates taking up a varied set of musical roles. Necessitated by the decidedly non-traditional lineup, lead and support roles are shared and swapped as each each composition’s improvisation moves forward.
The opening track “Around The Bend” is a perfect example of what this great trio was capable of. At first, Douglas and Shepik play in unison as Black sketches out a rhythmic framework. A few minutes later, Shepik drops out as Douglas solos while Black, in all of his amazing resourcefulness, provides both rhythmic and harmonic accompaniment. As Blacks cranks up the idea machine, Douglas plays with increased enthusiasm, even tossing in a bit of Sonny Rollins’ “St. Thomas.” Shepik comes back in for a bit and then Douglas take a break as Shepik takes a winding turn with Black.
Chord solos are mixed in with twisting single lines as Black spills out more ideas than a rational person might think is possible. The trio riffs together for a bit before Black takes his own solo, sounding like nothing you’ve ever heard before. The entire group reprises the original theme before ending on one long trumpet note. It’s inventive and exhilarating stuff.
To get an idea of the breadth of this trio’s interests, it’s instructive to look at what they chose to cover at this concert.
First is “Langsam,” a transcription of part of a Schumann piece originally written for cello and piano. It’s romantic, harmonically rich (especially the way Douglas and Shepik intertwine their lines), and just gorgeous. Serious, yes? So skip to the end of the night and revel in “Czardas”. A traditional Hungarian folk tune is run through with humor and affection. Beginning at Zorn-like speed, the Tiny Bell Trio steps back and examines the themes piecemeal to see what improvisational nuggets can be discovered. Listening to what Shepik does with these lines, it’s fairly obvious that he’s equally at home in the worlds of both jazz and traditional musics.
“Big ears” might have become a jazz stereotype, but if you give a listen to this concert, you’ll see that there’s a lot of meaning behind that idea. Jim Black, Dave Douglas and Brad Shepik give new meaning to the word ‘versatility.’