by Giovanni Russonello
Straight-ahead jazz’s fixation on the past can often lead to stagnation. But on his dazzling new album, Wonders, Los Angeles-based tenor saxophonist Scott Jeppesen attacks the problem in an unlikely way: he reaches way further back. So far back, in fact, that there’s no room for imitation. The album draws its inspiration from the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World—and without photos or videos or first-hand accounts, Jeppesen says he had to dream up what these millennia-old places might have been like.
“Part of the allure of these wonders is the fact that they’re not there anymore—that provides challenges, but it also provides freedom,” Jeppesen says. “I did a lot of my writing for this album at the piano, closing my eyes and thinking, ‘What if I was actually living in those places—what could that possibly be like?’”
Recorded with an expert quintet, Wonders demonstrates not only Jeppesen’s silvery tone and his suspense-building skills as a soloist, but also his talents as an arranger and composer. He has written and arranged for such world-famous talents as Stevie Wonder, Dave Brubeck and Steve Miller on tours and in televised performances. These experiences have helped mold his approach.
But Jeppesen’s biggest influence came early, from the late saxophone legend Joe Henderson, who mentored Jeppesen when he was still a teenager growing up in Sacramento. “The guys I’ve worked with down here in L.A. have influenced my work in many ways, but I always feel Joe exerts the strongest pull on me,” he says. “Sometimes he would play bebop and other times he’d play stuff that made you say, ‘What in the world was that?’ His message to me was: If you hear a sound that’s what you should play—no matter how quirky, weird, or what time signature it was in—because your ears don’t lie. In spite of all the rules and boxes that are placed around you when you’re going through the jazz education system, make sure to focus on what are your ears telling you to do, and follow them into the unknown.”
Jeppesen is about to receive his Doctor of Musical Arts degree in jazz studies from the University of Southern California, finishing many years of schooling that have landed him under the wing of other notable mentors like Shelly Berg and Bob Mintzer. Jeppesen wrote much of Wonders in sessions with esteemed pianist Russell Ferrante, of the Yellowjackets, who challenged Jeppesen to embrace the harmonic complexity of his own ideas, and to “start to think polytonally.”
“The stuff that I write is often very difficult to play, and particularly to improvise over, because it’s not using conventional harmonies,” Jeppesen says. “But I try to think of things in a vocal way when I’m writing melodies. That way, even when I stretch—harmonically, rhythmically, texturally—my goal is to give the listener a melody that’s going to stick in their head and they’re going to hum when they walk down the street.”
Throughout Wonders, Jeppesen shows that he has learned to prize melody and natural flow while holding onto a gently boundary-pushing instinct. Starting with the booming declarations of the album’s first track, “Hanging Gardens of Babylon,” each of the album’s 10 originals boasts a combination of cinematic scope and an intimate storyteller’s voice.
With help from fellow emerging L.A. musicians Larry Koonse on guitar, Josh Nelson on piano and keyboard, Dave Robaire on bass and Dan Schnelle on drums, Jeppesen interweaves elements of funk and early-1970s electric fusion with sleek but heady modern jazz. He fits it all snugly into the format of a straight-ahead quintet, leaving space when needed and dialing up the intensity with masterful control.
Wonders follows on the heels of Jeppesen’s well-received debut, 2014’s El Guapo, which received glowing reviews from many outlets, including DownBeat (the magazine singled out Jeppesen’s “creative writing” and “swinging playfulness”).
His playing on both releases bears the mark of Joe Henderson in Jeppesen’s broad range of soloistic expression—sometimes his tone is drawn down and dusky, others it’s ebullient and clear as a cloudless sky. Often, Jeppesen’s tenor playing sounds like it’s influenced equally by the powerful, pinched tone of Stan Getz and the evenly escalating control of Joshua Redman.
Jeppesen is one amongst a handful of excellent rising musicians in Los Angeles, where fellow saxophonists from a variety of scenes are reshaping the current identity of jazz—from Terrace Martin and Kamasi Washington to Danny Janklow and Walter Smith III. With this newest release, Jeppesen takes his most decisive step yet toward joining them on the national stage.