Saxophonist-Composer Scott Jeppesen Steps Out With El Guapo

First Recording as a Leader Features a Cast of L.A. All-Stars

by Bill Milkowski

An active player on the Los Angeles jazz scene who has performed as a sideman with the

likes of Bobby McFerrin, Manhattan Transfer, Dave Brubeck, Al Jarreau and James Moody, saxophonist-composer-arranger Scott Jeppesen emerges as a leader in his own right with El Guapo. A work of singular vision and maturity, Jeppesen’s fully-realized debut resonates with the kind of depth and sophistication that speaks of his experience as a composer-arranger for a wide range of artists, including Steve Miller, Ramsey Lewis, Natalie Cole, Ruben Studdard, Dave Koz, Ledisi and Monica Mancini. On El Guapo, the talented journeyman is joined by a core group of L.A. all-stars in trumpeter John Daversa, guitarist Larry Koonse, pianist Josh Nelson, bassist Dave Robaire and drummer Dan Schnelle. Together they strike a scintillating accord on this seasoned offering.

While Jeppesen’s impressive first album as a leader serves as a showcase for his robust, adventurous playing on tenor and soprano saxes and bass clarinet, it also reflects the towering influence of his three main saxophone inspirations -- Joe Henderson, Wayne Shorter and Sonny Rollins. “Joe and Wayne are rough around the edges,” he says. “Instead of this perfect, clean, pristine product, there’s always some edgy and unpredictable elements to what they do. And I felt in large part throughout this album that we were album to achieve that same rough around the edges quality, which I love.”

Jeppesen’s thoughtful and highly personal writing throughout El Guapo draws on the influence of such potent long form composers as Shorter and Grammy-winning big band composer-arranger Maria Schneider, whom he studied with while working on his masters degree at the University of Southern California. “She came out and spent a week working with the big band, and the effect that she had on the group -- her talking to us about her compositions and the way that she was able to affect the way that we played them -- was pretty profound. She has such a concept and you can’t avoid that when you hear her music. Her ideas pushed me in new and different ways.”

El Guapo opens with the energetic tile track, serving as an introduction to Jeppesen’s accomplished writing and potent tenor playing. With Koonse comping rhythmically on nylon string acoustic guitar and Schnelle affecting the sound of cajon with his brisk brushwork on the kit, there’s a distinct Spanish tinge at the outset of this beguiling tune. As the piece develops, it opens up to some formidable soloing by Jeppesen on tenor, whose ability to play fluently and passionately over the full range of the horn recalls Joe Henderson’s modus operandi. “Joe was kind of my hero, more than anybody else,” says Scott. “I actually got to study with him for a couple of years in the last part of his life, in San Francisco. It was never a real ‘sit down with the saxophone’ kind of thing, it was more like we talked a lot on the phone. I talked to him for two hours one time, just talking about music and philosophy. He was pretty special and influential.”

Koonse’s brilliant nylon string solo on the opening track also shows why he is one of the most highly regarded jazz guitarists on the West Coast today. Staying on nylon string acoustic, he joins Jeppesen for an evocative duet on Richie Beirach’s ethereal etude “Elm,” which the pianist introduced as the title track of his 1979 ECM album. “Great Odin’s Raven” is a showcase for Jeppesen’s long form approach to composition. As he explains, “I did that as a writing exercise when I was working with Alan Pasqua back in 2007-2008. I came in for lessons and he said, ‘Write me a tune, I’ll be back in 20 minutes.’ So that’s what I came up with...a little melody in the beginning that gradually evolves. But I had the essence of the tune in about 20 minutes.” The dynamc piece is highlighted by some turbulent blowing from both the tenor saxophonist and trumpeter Daversa, who also served as co-producer on the session. Nelson adds a stirring, open- ended piano solo on this adventurous vehicle.

The atmospheric quartet piece “I Tend to Agree” incorporates Fender Rhodes electric piano, which instantly introduces a new color to the proceedings. A highly interactive number, it’s another example of Jeppesen’s accomplished composing style. Nelson switches to piano for a brilliant solo in the middle of this piece and Jeppesen follows with a robust tenor solo to put an exclamation point on the proceedings. The leader switches to bass clarinet for the spacious chamber jazz offering “Maybe Later.” Daversa turns in a gorgeous flugelhorn solo on this darkly delicate number and is followed in turn by Koonse, whose warm-toned flow on electric guitar perfectly suits the subdued mood of the piece.

Jeppesen favors soprano sax on the bolero flavored “No Drama.” Robaire’s beautiful, deep-toned bass solo here is followed on the high end by the leader’s sinuous soprano solo. The intricate and energized “Overlapping Conversations,” with its avant-funk interlude, was written when Jeppesen was on jury duty in L.A. As he explains, “At one point I was in the lobby where they have all the potential jurors hanging out all day. I had my laptop there and moved to an off-shoot room to the main lobby, and I realized once I sat down there I realized that there was kind of an acoustical anomaly in that I could hear almost every word that every person in the main room was saying. And so that’s where the title for ‘Overlapping Conversations’ comes in.”

The beautifully relaxed “Hidden,” with its allusions to Wayne Shorter’s “Fall,” carries a kind of quiet power. “In the beginning, I was undoubtedly thinking of something that was very Wayne-inspired,” says Jeppesen. “Then the second section I think is a little more influenced by Maria Schneider’s writing, where you hear these pyramids of sound kind of coming on top of each other. So it’s kind of shifting between these two different things.”

The moving, hymn-like “Prayer for Sandy Hook” was composed by Jeppesen as a response to the tragic shootings at the elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut. “I’m the father of two girls, a nine year old and a three year old,” he explains. “When you have children and you have to go and drop them off at school every day...and when that tragedy happened at Sandy Hook, it was like you just rush to school and you hug ‘em and you don’t want to take them back the next day.” He adds, “When I solo over that piece, I kind of try to put myself back to that day, trying to kind of create an air of being, ‘Why? How can this happen?’”

The closing track of El Guapo, a spirited trio rendition of “Don’t Fence Me In,” has Jeppesen stretching out with bassist Robaire and drummer Schnelle in a freewheeling fashion that bears the stamp of Sonny Rollins’ liberated blowing on his landmark 1957 trio recording Way Out West (with bassist Ray Brown and drummer Shelly Manne). In fact, Jeppesen doesn’t even refer directly to Cole Porter’s familiar melody until that last minute of the tune. “That’s something that Sonny would’ve done...just take off and blow and when you’re about to be finished, let ‘em know what song you’re playing,” he says of this Rollinsesque closer, “John and I were talking about the project and he said, ‘We need to find something that’s a standard but not a tune that everybody plays all the time.’ He had been listening to Cole Porter’s ‘Don’t Fence Me In’ and he said, ‘I don’t know if this would fit with what you’re doing...but maybe it fits because it’s completely different than everything else.’ And I proposed doing it in that more open-ended Way Out West style with a trio, kind of almost like a recorded after-party album.”

Though he has been an in-demand figure on the Los Angeles scene for many years now, El Guapo serves as a proper introduction to Scott Jeppesen. With this auspicious debut, more jazz fans and cognoscenti beyond the City of Angels are going to know about this seasoned talent deserving of wider recognition.