In his debut album as a leader, saxophonist Scott Jeppesen showcases all he’s learned on the journey thus far. One doesn’t emerge from playing as a sideman for the likes of Bobby McFerrin, Dave Brubeck and the Manhattan Transfer without some stories to tell, after all.
And one doesn’t work as a composer and arranger for artists like Steve Miller, Dave Koz, Natalie Cole, and Ramsey Lewis without a mind for drawing those stories into complete sonic experiences.
El Guapo finds Jeppesen playing to his Los Angeles strengths. It’s a deeply textured record, one of feeling and substance that moves easily from entirely personal tunes to allusions to some of his influences. Jeppesen is joined by trumpeter John Daversa, guitarist Larry Koonse, pianist Josh Nelson, drummer Dan Schnelle, and bassist Dave Robaire.
For his own performance, Jeppesen looks to the stuff of Joe Henderson and Wayne Shorter. “Joe and Wayne are rough around the edges,” he says. “Instead of this perfect, clean, pristine product, there’s always some edgy and unpredictable elements to what they do. And I felt in large part throughout this album that we were album to achieve that same rough around the edges quality, which I love.”
This is apparent immediately with the title track of El Guapo, a piece that is both cheeky and expansive. There’s a clear Maria Schneider inspiration at play in the way Jeppesen has organized his outfit, but there’s also a pulsing sense of urgency that quickens the refrain. Schnelle and Robaire cultivate a Spanish-tinged undertow, which pulls Nelson’s piano along for the ride.
The bolero-touched “No Drama” finds Jeppesen switching to the soprano saxophone. He tiptoes through the introduction like a snake-charmer sweet-talking Robaire’s bass out of the basket. “Overlapping Conversations” aptly explores multiple voices coursing along the same path. The instruments function in unison for the most part, with Nelson adding splashes here and there and Robaire parting company with a diabolical bass portion that cruises the Groove District in search of some serious action.
Along with the funkier side of life, El Guapo is at times painfully pensive. “Prayer for Sandy Hook” examines anguish in a way that perhaps only the musical art can, with Jeppesen’s saxophone tenderly starting and stopping phrases. Even as the piece hints at hope, the import is clear: no words will do.
Jeppesen’s gift, from the title track to a rousing and necessarily therapeutic version of Cole Porter’s “Don’t Fence Me In,” takes the path less travelled. El Guapo is nevertheless fascinating and marvellous, an assortment of experiences and stories – some indescribable – told through song and delivered with wonder.
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