A World Tour at Home

Brad Shepik — Human Activity Suite (Songlines, 2009)

shepikHuman Activity Suite doesn’t turn out to be as “world-music” sounding as I expected, and that’s not a bad thing. The project, with seven of its ten songs linked to the continents, is more subtle than that. Brad Shepik presents contemporary, guitar-led jazz — it’s got surface similarities to Pat Metheny in places — that tours the globe to gather nudges and inspirations, not to rehash musical stereotypes.

Sometimes the ties are more obvious, as in the Latin jazz vibe and accordion solo on “Lima.” (Bandoneon is part of some South African country’s music, isn’t it? Am I stretching here?)

Sometimes it’s more subtle. “Blue Marble,” the African piece, borrows its rhythm and light guitar sound from African music, certainly, but it’s woven into a modern-jazz context, swimming in atmosphere; the tribal rhythm spun here conjures something more like a Native American resonance to my ears. It’s one of the Metheny-like pieces, and I should mention that I mean that in a positive way. “Waves,” the Asia-inspired track, uses the accordion in a dancing melody that seems to borrow from Indian or Persian rhythms — again, a nice mix of ideas without going for a direct and obvious Asian sound.

Even Antarctica gets a nod with “Stir,” a track that’s appropriately slow and has a steely touch, but isn’t at all icy. In fact, the melody’s quite warm.

The band is top-notch, by the way. The moods are set in part by having only one horn present (Ralph Alessi‘s trumpet), and the rhythm section of Tom Rainey (drums) and Drew Gress (bass) bring heavy New York experience from contexts such as Tim Berne‘s Paraphrase. Gary Versace handles keyboards and accordion.

As you’d probably guess, the album has roots in the global warming crisis. Shepik’s answer is an ambitious suite of songs that paint grand landscapes in a light more hopeful than dire. The polished sound gets close to being comfort-jazz in spots, but I admire the way Shepik turned this album into a big-thinking project, and I think he pulled it off well.