Jazz Live: The Bob Sheppard Quartet Upstairs at Vitello’s

By Don Heckman

When saxophonist Bob Sheppard was offered a gig at Vitello’s upstairs room in Studio City Wednesday night, his first reaction was to pass on it.  “Who shows up at a jazz supper club a couple of nights before Christmas?” he thought.  But he took the gig anyhow, and was pleasantly surprised – not just by the turn out, but by the enthusiasm of the response from a crowd  peppered with fellow musicians, a few of whom agreed to sit in during the second set.

Sheppard’s group included a pair of veteran Southland jazz artists in guitarist Larry Koonse and bassist Darek Oles, with Steve Hass — a relatively new arrival from the East Coast — on drums.  And the great pleasure of the night was hearing how these solid professionals allowed themselves to unwind and dig into the sheer spontaneity of making music.

At times, there was some confusion over what tune was coming next.  At other times, Sheppard had to give head nods and body language  signals to move the music from section to another.  But all that was simply a reflection of the sort of improvisational energies that were present in a set that simmered with high spirited inventiveness.  Sheppard set the pace throughout.  His versatility as an improviser is well-known, but he receives less credit than he should for his individuality, for his ability to infuse the contemporary jazz saxophone style with the special qualities of his own unique creative imagination.

Although the evening had been given the whimsical title, “The Feliz Hanukah Show,” the first few tunes made it clear that Sheppard intended to move beyond even that inclusive title.  Starting with an off-center line based on ‘How Deep Is the Ocean?” he led the quartet through Kenny Barron’s mysterious “Phantoms,” a gorgeous rendering of Duke Ellington’s “Prelude To A Kiss” – featuring a stunning Sheppard cadenza at the close – and a loose swinging take on a Polish carol provided by Poland-born bassist Oles (Oleszkiewicz).  In each number, Koonse was the perfect front-line companion, matching Sheppard’s solo excursions with romps of his own, filling a strong, comping role when that was required.  Oles, as always, was a sturdy, swinging foundation.  And Hass, despite a tendency to fill too many beats with busyness, added dynamic vitality to the rhythm.

Other selections included a truly off the cuff version of “Carol of the Bells,” with a fiery set of exchanges between Sheppard’s soprano sax and Hass’ drums.   In the second set, the far-reaching choice of material continued, embracing everything from Tom Jobim’s “A Felicidade” to Wayne Shorter’s “Toro.”  And when, at various times, pianists Rich Eames and John Campbell, and bassist Tom Warrington sat in, the quality of the music remained at peak level, enhanced by the added stylistic variations that each of these fine players brought to the mix.

This utterly entertaining evening hit its most engaging point when singer April Williams, who also books the music for Vitello’s, sat in to sing her brief, timely and funny lyrics to “Feliz Hanukah” – based, of course on “Feliz Navidad.”  It was the perfect climax to an irresistibly entertaining jazz program.

A program of the sort that has been echoing almost nightly Upstairs at Vitello’s since Ms. Williams took over the booking management.  That connection – between a manager with an ear for talent and a room with the right receptivity — has to be considered one of the great gifts of 2009 for Southland jazz fans.  And the appearance of Sheppard, Koonse, Oles and Hass Wednesday was an affirmation of the fact that first rate jazz, performed in a relaxed and amiable setting, will always find an enthusiastic audience.

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