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A resident of Hermosa Beach, California, a location indelibly etched in the minds of jazz literati as the Mecca of West Coast or “Cool” jazz - an association perhaps forged solely by the iconic Lighthouse and its sundry “All-Stars” – Ray Zepeda has created an oeuvre that is anything but regionally definable. Moreover, his music has heretofore been, for the most part, anything but “cool” in the sense that the term is commonly applied to characterize the West Coast school. While some comparisons can be drawn between Zepeda’s penchant for thoughtful composition and the aesthetic of the cool school which favored complex , logically-derived melodic lines and intricate arrangements over the pure “blowing” session, the listener cannot help but take notice of the markedly aggressive nature of his improvised lines, especially on Stella By Starlight, Step By Step, and Two Weeks’ Notice, exhibiting an angularity more akin to the bebop school of 52nd Street and the East Coast hard bop lexicon than to the more singable line playing of sunnier climes. Said affinity notwithstanding, Zepeda’s playing is intensely melodic as evidenced by his soulful renderings of Untitled #1, Midland, and Never Will I Marry where the innate beauty of the tune’s harmonic underpinning is brought to the foreground by his compelling lyricism and where every note is imbued with his highly personal signature without ever crossing the line of affectation or artifice. Contrast this with his wholly experimental and unabashedly visceral version of Body and Soul – a veritable tour de force in extended techniques from his capacious reservoir of timbral resources - and one must conclude that Zepeda is a master for whom the saxophone is but a transparent vehicle through which he can speak with clarity whatever he hears and feels in the moment directly to his audience in a way they find emotionally impactful and intellectually engaging.
While Zepeda’s arrangement of Stella By Starlight falls along traditional lines, it provides a perfect showcase for Rich Eames’s sinewy piano lines and Joe La Barbera’s spirited and crisp drumming during the exchange of eights with Zepeda and Eames. Zepeda’s title cut, Step By Step, by contrast, is a work of daunting complexity, the intricate inner workings of which all relate in some way to various melodic, intervallic, and harmonic elements of John Coltrane’s Giant Steps where excerpts from Coltrane’s melody are sometimes even presented in retrograde or inversion. While this would not be apparent at the beginning to most listeners without the benefit of detailed analysis of the score’s minutiae, step by step the piece does gradually become more and more like its model (hence the title) until the solo section is reached at which point it becomes obvious and things start to really burn. Zepeda, Eames, and Oles offer up masterful solos, effortlessly executed, even at this brisk tempo, over some of the most difficult changes in the jazz repertoire. La Barbera is flawless throughout this cut, driving its forward momentum at every juncture.
Zepeda’s Untitled #1, his arrangement of Frank Loesser’s Never Will I Marry, and his version of Midland by Grammy-winning composer and pianist, Billy Childs, are all perhaps a tip of the hat to what he calls the “ECM school” after Manfred Eicher’s label known for producing jazz albums that are more contemplative in nature. While Zepeda’s melodic sensibilities and heartwarming and resonant tone shine brightly throughout, Eames too effectively captures the whole ECM vibe especially in his Keith Jarrett-like gospel-influenced interpretation of Never Will I Marry.
While there is historic precedent for doing so (i.e., Billy Boy on Miles Davis’s Milestones album), Zepeda’s inclusion of his You Haven’t Changed sans composer /leader may seem a curious choice but not when you consider that he has Bill Evans’s old drummer, Joe La Barbera, in the group. Eames is nothing short of brilliant here, clearly evoking Evans with the sympathetic interplay with La Barbera and Oles who delivers his own soaring, melodic bass solo. Inspired by the composer’s high school reunion (hence the title) and seemingly fashioned along the lines of a standard straight out of the “Great American Songbook”, it was found to work perfectly in a trio setting and deemed too beautiful a tune to omit. To even the score, Zepeda’s Two Weeks’ Notice is performed here as a trio, this time without Eames. Given La Barbera’s and Oles’s association with former Ornette Coleman bassist, Charlie Haden, they are no strangers to the pianoless ensemble and the challenges posed by the lack of chordal support. Based on the chord changes of John Coltrane’s Moment’s Notice, Zepeda composed Two Weeks’ Notice for his departure from one of his employers, performing it a cappella through a speakerphone at home into the employer’s answering machine without further explanation. (The rumor that he even attached the sheet music to his formal resignation is untrue, however). After La Barbera’s introduction paraphrasing the melody on drums, Zepeda’s atonal angular melody featuring large intervallic leaps between adjacent pitch classes lays surprisingly comfortably atop Oles’s bass line and, with their judicious note choices, the chord progression is clearly heard throughout Zepeda’s and Oles’s solos which are followed by some group improvisation before a return to the melody.
While Two Weeks’ Notice may dance along the edge of the avant-garde, Zepeda’s tenor and drums duet with La Barbera on Body and Soul unapologetically drives it straight over the cliff without so much as tapping the brakes. Amidst all the flurries, the simpatico is really quite amazing here with La Barbera responding perfectly to Zepeda’s every gesture and vice versa. This performance, haunting at times - vacillating freely between pointillistic episodes and active passages - is demonstrative of the range of expression and the richness of tapestry that can be achieved with just two non-chordal instrumentalists. Consummate artists both, they are still able to make the basic tune and progression discernible to the careful listener all the way through and they intuitively know when to leave space and when to force the issue which prevents the performance from degenerating into eccentricity, something that happens all too often in the experimental jazz world. While the textural variation, visceral gestures, and extended techniques may be what grab the listener on the first hearing, repeat study is guaranteed to reward the listener with more treasures with every subsequent hearing.
One of the most versatile exponents of the latest cadre of young jazz musicians to emerge in the post-“Young Lions” era, saxophonist, Ray Zepeda, differentiates himself not only by his diverse musical background but also by his life story – a sojourn that began in the shadows of oil wells and derricks in Taft, California, followed by his formative musical development in the beach cities of Los Angeles’s South Bay which led to a 5-year stint in the Boston area where he greatly broadened his musical perspective and started composing, only to return to the South Bay to establish himself in the Los Angeles jazz scene – a life that has not only encompassed alternating periods of focus on “classical” composition, jazz, and popular music, but also various professional pursuits which have included jobs as a music educator and knife salesman, and a successful project management career in the worldwide oil & gas industry. The economics of jazz notwithstanding, rest assured that Ray Zepeda has lived the jazz way, improvising a life, as it were, - exploiting every opening, pulling on every thread no matter how tenuous or impossibly thin, and approaching life with a humility that has allowed others to shine and benefit from his gifts – and, undeterred by numerous vicissitudes, has achieved his highest level of success during this, the most severe economic turndown in memory. This is not as much an artist’s story as it is a uniquely American one.
A veteran of the Los Angeles jazz, reggae, punk, pop, and house DJ scene, Zepeda has performed/recorded with Lou Rawls, Russ Ferrante (Yellowjackets), John Patitucci (Chick Corea), Joe La Barbera (Bill Evans Trio), Barbara Morrison, Thelma Jones, Carl Saunders (Stan Kenton/ Bill Holman), Dave Tull (Chuck Mangione/ Michael Buble), Lanny Morgan (Supersax/ Natalie Cole), Mike Bennett (Hillary Duff, Kenny G, JC Chasez), Darek Oles (Dianne Reeves, Brad Mehldau), Johnny Blas (CuBop Records), and DJs Mikie Smithers, Jim Carson, Serafin, and many others. Since beginning his professional career playing lead alto in various big bands at the age of 15, his musical palette has expanded to include everything from serious composition to avant-garde jazz to contemporary pop to punk rock. Mr. Zepeda holds the Master of Music in Jazz Studies from the University of Southern California where he studied with saxophonist, Bob Sheppard (Steely Dan, Chick Corea, Mike Stern), and the Bachelor of Science from Massachusetts Institute of Technology where he studied Composition with Pulitzer Prize and MacArthur Grant-winning composer, John Harbison.
Although best-known to most as the drummer in the last Bill Evans Trio from 1978 to 1980, Joe La Barbera’s resume reads like a “who’s who” of jazz legends, having also enjoyed stints with Woody Herman and the Thundering Herd, the Chuck Mangione Quartet, Jim Hall, Phil Woods, Art Farmer, Gary Burton, Art Pepper, John Scofield, Bob Brookmeyer , Toots Thielmans, Bill Mays, Eddie Daniels, Randy Brecker , Pat La Barbera, Kenny Wheeler, John Abercrombie, the WDR Big Band, Lee Konitz, Karrin Allyson, Bud Shank, Conte Candoli, Alan Broadbent, and many others. Upon Bill Evans’s passing, La Barbera went with legendary singer, Tony Bennett, for 12 years. Originally from New York state, La Barbera eventually moved to Los Angeles where he has been a first-call jazz drummer for the last two decades and has gone on to lead his own Quintet and form the independent record label, Jazz Compass, through which he has released 3 albums under his own name. A Berklee College of Music alumnus, Mr. La Barbera has been on the faculty of the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) since 1993 while still maintaining an active international touring and clinician schedule.
Since arriving in Los Angeles in 1988 from his native Poland, bassist, Darek Oles, has become arguably the most sought-after acoustic bass player on the West Coast and has performed and recorded with jazz luminaries of international import including Brad Mehldau, Billy Higgins, Pat Metheny, Joe Lovano, Eddie Henderson, Charles Lloyd, John Abercrombie, Bennie Maupin, Lee Konitz, Peter Erskine, Alan Pasqua, Bennie Wallace, Victor Lewis, Harvey Mason, Dave Grusin, Art Farmer, Horace Silver, Alice Coltrane, Ravi Coltrane, James Newton, Arthur Blythe, Lew Tabackin, Steve Kuhn, Gary Smulyan, Ronnie Cuber, Billy Hart, Kevin Hays, Toshiko Akiyoshi, Marian McPartland, Janis Siegel, Bob Brookmeyer, Curtis Fuller, Roy McCurdy, Tom Harrell, Larry Goldings, Bill Stewart, Chris Potter, Kei Akagi, Billy Childs, Bob Sheppard, Joe La Barbera, Bill Cunliffe, Patrice Rushen, Bennie Golson, Teri Lynn Carrington, Buddy De Franco, Terry Gibbs, Anthony Wilson Nonet, and the Los Angeles Jazz Quartet. All told, Oles has recorded on approximately 100 albums, several of which have been nominated for Grammys. Oles received a Fryderyk Award nomination in Poland for "Jazz Musician of the Year" in 2003 and was voted "Best Acoustic Bassist" in the Jazz Top readers’ poll in Jazz Forum – the European Magazine in 2005. His first album as a leader, "Like a Dream", with Brad Mehldau and Bennie Maupin, was released by Cryptogramophone Records in 2004 and garnered worldwide critical acclaim. His recorded output now includes 12 albums as a leader or co-leader on various labels including Naxos Jazz and Jazz Compass. Mr. Oles holds the Bachelor of Arts from California Institute of the Arts where he studied with bassist, Charlie Haden, and where he has held a jazz faculty position since 1992. He has simultaneously held a Lecturer post at University of California, Irvine since 2002 and has also taught at the University of Southern California, all the while performing hundreds of concerts throughout the USA, Europe, and Asia.
Pianist, Rich Eames, embodies the modern, working musician, something he has done since long before such a phrase came into parlance. Vernacular aside, Eames is unequivocally a jazz pianist first and foremost and an artist in his own right having released 3 albums as a leader on the Palm Mountain label and having recorded on over 50 others on labels such as Warner Brothers, RCA, JVC, Sea Breeze Jazz, and Origin, to name a few, with renowned West Coast jazz figures such as Bill Holman, Kim Richmond, Charlie Shoemake, Thom Rotella, and Dick Weller, even lending his skills to pop superstar, Peter Cetera’s self-titled album. While performing with jazz heavyweights such as Doc Severinsen, Diane Schuur, Phil Woods, Bill Watrous, Emil Richards, Jack Sheldon, Alphonso Johnson, the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra, the Dave Pell Octet, Bob Cooper, the Tonight Show Band, and Ed Shaughnessy has established Eames’s credentials as an A-list jazz sideman, and while being a long-time member of the Grammy-winning Bill Holman Big Band has secured his position in Los Angeles’s rich jazz history, it has not pigeonholed him or limited his sphere of influence, nor has his association with Cetera, the Pointer Sisters, Lou Rawls, Rick Braun, Jack Jones, Patti Austin, Esther Phillips, Nell Carter, Christopher Cross, Keely Smith, Themla Houston, or Angela Bofil caused any jazz purists to look askance. A top-shelf Los Angeles studio musician who has played on countless high-profile feature films, television shows, and commercial jingles, Eames is also widely known as one of L.A.’s most prolific and successful composers and producers of film and television music whose work has been heard on Fatal Attraction, Saved by the Bell, Herman’s Head, Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Family Matters, In Living Color, Partners in Crime, Party of Five, and many other shows. What is abundantly clear is that this Iowa-born jazzer has figured out how to negotiate this dichotomous musical life of his and make it work, not just for himself, but for all of us with an appreciation for impeccable craft, boundless creativity, and flawless execution, regardless of genre.
1. Stella By Starlight [7:33]
(Victor Young) Sony ATV/Harmony - ASCAP
2. Step By Step [10:20]
(Ray Zepeda) Cambridge West Publishing – BMI
3. Untitled #1 (Out of Love) [6:41]
(Ray Zepeda) Cambridge West Publishing – BMI
4. Body and Soul [10:09]
(Johnny Green) Quartet Music, Inc./Range Road Music, Inc./WB Music Corp. - ASCAP
5. Midland [7:42]
(Billy Childs) A Side Music LLC/Lunacy Music - BMI
6. You Haven’t Changed [7:05]
(Ray Zepeda) Cambridge West Publishing – BMI
7. Two Weeks’ Notice [9:55]
(Ray Zepeda) Cambridge West Publishing – BMI
8. Never Will I Marry [8:12]
(Frank Loesser) Frank Music Corp. – ASCAP
RAY ZEPEDA soprano, alto, and tenor saxophones
Joe La Barbera drums
Darek Oles bass
Rich Eames piano
Mr. Zepeda plays Selmer Mark VI soprano and tenor saxophones and a Buescher 400 “Top Hat and Cane” alto saxophone, all with Rovner ligatures and Vandoren reeds. Reeds: Vandoren #4 (sop.), Java #3 (alto), and V16 #2-1/2 (ten.). Mouthpieces: Selmer C* (sop.), Brillhart 5* (alto), and Peter Ponzol M2000 (ten.).
Producers: Ray Zepeda and David Bondelevitch
Recorded in Los Angeles, California, USA
Recording Engineers: David Bondelevitch and Steve Kaplan
Mixed in "Surround" by David Bondelevitch
"Surround" Mastering by David Bondelevitch, Denver, Colorado, USA, September 2012
Photography by Lynn Bly
Art Direction and Design: Susie Graham
Information and Booking: MusicRayZ@yahoo.com
© 2012 Ray Zepeda ℗ 2012 Soundsketch Records
2110 Artesia Boulevard, Suite B; Redondo Beach, California 90278; USA
All rights reserved.
Unauthorized duplication is a violation of applicable laws. Made in U.S.A.