Jazzman Bob Sheppard should be better known - The Mercury News
Bob Sheppard should need no introduction to the Bay Area jazz scene.
One of the most sought-after saxophonists in Los Angeles, he made his San Francisco debut in the early 1980s at Keystone Korner with trumpet great Freddie Hubbard, forming a long-running musical relationship that established Sheppard as a heavyweight contender. While he didn’t record much with Hubbard, they did play together on the exhilarating “Live at the Douglas Beach House 1983” (Passport).
“I was young, and the whole thing was pretty exciting, standing up on this famous stage at Keystone with Freddie Hubbard,” says Sheppard, 60, who makes a rare return to the Bay Area leading his own band Sunday at Yoshi’s San Francisco. “I got my butt kicked every night and learned a lot.”
He went on to appear numerous times at Kimball’s and the old Yoshi’s on Claremont, in Oakland, with Horace Silver, Mike Stern, Andy Narrel, Peter Horvath and Steve Erquiaga. He’s probably best known to jazz fans these days for his high-profile stint in the late 1990s with Chick Corea’s prodigious sextet Origin, a band bristling with young New York talent.
Over the past decade, however, Sheppard has spent far more time in Europe and Japan than Northern California. While widely revered by his peers, Sheppard is a prime example of the difficulties that Southern California can present for jazz musicians. Simply put, actors go to Los Angeles to get famous, while jazz players move to L.A. to make a living.
It’s not that there’s a multitude of good jazz gigs just lounging around Hollywood Boulevard. But the same entertainment industry that draws celebrity-hungry thespians has long provided steady and relatively well-paid work for musicians possessing the particular skills required for studio employment, recording everything from commercial jingles and pop songs to television scores and film soundtracks.
For Sheppard, who grew up in the Philadelphia suburb of Levittown, settling in L.A. never figured into his career plans. But after earning a master’s degree from the Eastman School of Music, he ended up following several friends to Southern California.
An accomplished sight reader and fluent on multiple horns (tenor and soprano sax, flute and bass clarinet), he quickly found work as a studio musician, and he spent the next two decades dividing his time between jazz gigs and recording sessions for films such as “Jerry Maguire,” “Leaving Las Vegas” and “Forrest Gump,” and television soundtracks, including “Seinfeld,” “Cheers” and “Northern Exposure.”
“I never planned on the studio career, but I’ve led two musical lives and I managed to keep it all rolling,” Sheppard says. “There have been some really memorable sessions, like being alone in the studio with Joni Mitchell for her album ‘Shine,’ which won a Grammy.
“At any moment, I could get a call and do something totally different than the day before. Some of the experiences aren’t the most exciting musically, but they’re interesting because you’re around very colorful people.”
With all his work on other people’s projects, Sheppard hasn’t devoted much time to his own recording career. He marked a turn toward focusing on his own music with the 2010 release of his third album under his own name, “Close Your Eyes” (BFM Jazz), a stellar session that showcases his playing and arranging.
One of his steady jazz gigs has been with drum master Peter Erskine in the Lounge Art Ensemble, which performs Saturday at Campbell Recital Hall as part of the Stanford Jazz Festival. Much like Sheppard, Erskine is a supremely versatile musician who has thrived as a jazz artist, session musician and educator (they’re both on the faculty at the University of Southern California’s Thornton School of Music). He’s best known for an influential stint with the fusion supergroup Weather Report in the late 1970s, when he teamed up in the rhythm section with electric bass star Jaco Pastorius.
“Shep is one of the great tenor players of our time,” Erskine says. “He’s in that small circle with the top guys. In the Lounge Art Ensemble, we’re primarily playing post-hard bop where we can turn on a dime and play lyrically or straight ahead swinging. That’s what I like to do these days, play less and less and make it swing more and more.”
For the Stanford performance, Lounge Art is expanding from its usual trio lineup with ace L.A. bassist Darek Oles to include the brilliant Southland guitarist Larry Koonse. On Sunday, Oles and Koonse play with Sheppard at Yoshi’s, joined by New York drummer Mark Ferber, a graduate of Moraga’s Campolindo High School.
While New York is still the mecca for ambitious young musicians, L.A. turned out to be a smart bet for Sheppard, whose tough, bruising tone earned him that key gig with Freddie Hubbard.
“If I went to New York, there would have been at least 30 guys who could have gotten that call,” Sheppard says. “But in L.A. at that time, there weren’t a lot of tenor saxophonists who played with my kind of East Coast tone.”