Album Review: Bob Sheppard – The Fine Line

Bob Sheppard
The Fine Line
(Challenge Records)

What might one expect upon first hearing the music of saxophonist and multi-instrumentalist Bob Sheppard?
To the modern jazz enthusiast possibly hints of hard bop icons like Wayne Shorter, Lee Morgan and Joe Henderson may spring to mind. To the average listener floating horn lines mixed with a kind of jazz funk atmosphere almost bordering on fusion music. Overall both observations hold firm ground when listening to Sheppard’s music and it’ s no surprise that his music is so hard to pin down. With a career spanning decades from the 1970s to the present day and his extensive work with musical giants both in and outside of his chosen genre. Working alongside legends such as Chick Corea, Freddie Hubbard and Herbie Hancock to list just a few of the names on Sheppard’s hefty list of collaborations. We also find the names of pop and rock greats Joni Mitchell and Neil Young. Again this is just a fragment of the names Bob Sheppard has shared the stage and studio with.
With such an amalgam of experience under his belt it makes sense that the music itself is so full of variation and therefore hard to neatly categorise. Aside from a constantly busy schedule, Sheppard has released seven albums
as leader each with different line ups and at different times in his career but no matter the band or time of release each one unmistakably has Sheppards distinctive writing style sewn in to it’s very fabric. The same can be said for 2019’s The Fine Line. Straight from the first track the listener is encompassed by free flowing horn melodies while the rhythm section bursts to life with an infectious sense of groove and drive. After this opener with its strong substance of hard bop one could think they have some definitive idea of the themes present on this album. However this is simply not true for the next piece presented. Run Amok opens straight up with a funky electric bass line on a laid back drum pattern entirely in the vein of jazz funk this piece bears no resemblance to the previous piece.
That being said as the album moves forward we return to the familiar acoustic timbres and hard bop energy we experienced in the opening and though the instrumentation aside from track two, stay roughly the same throughout the album; the variation from tune to tune is finely laid out. From beginning to end, each composition shows something different in its arrangement.
With Sheppard on reeds backed by a stunning ensemble of seasoned players. We hear the fleeting yet soothing style of saxophone legends and composer’s Wayne Shorter and John Coltrane. While the balance between hard and smooth drive is superbly carried out by the rhythm section, whose impeccable work as a unit and diversity in styles could be compared to the recordings of Chick Corea and Wayne Shorter, all carried out with a strong and straight-up energy fitting to the album’s title.

George Richardson