Good Vibes

Elder statesman of getting down: Fusion vibist Harry Sheppard

And most every Thursday in recent memory, Sheppard's been seen sitting in on Necessary Tension's ongoing weekly engagement at Rudyard's. He's the silver-haired gent slashing away with his mallets over on the right side of the stage, looking very much the energized elder statesman, even though you might well guess his age as somewhere in the early forties. "Some of the most exciting jazz anywhere is being played right down there at Rudyard's," he tells me. "It really is. When you're taking chances like that and working off each other, it doesn't always happen, but sometimes it's magic."

But the fusion format remains Sheppard's progressive preference; even if his last released album in that vein carries a 1991 date, it's to fusion that he's returning now with a band of locals including drummer Todd Harrison, bassist Erin Wright, guitarist Mike Sunjka, steel drummer Jeff Gleason and the founder of Necessary Tension, flautist Bob Chadwick. The band is kicking off with two shows this month at Munchies, and Sheppard hopes to find an ever-wider range of homes for his high-energy ensemble, including rock clubs.

"The fusion thing," he muses. "I can't understand why it's not catching on. Because there's a young generation that's getting into jazz. I would imagine that it would be a natural progression for them, getting into jazz with rock roots and rock environment, to want jazz-rock fusion -- it makes sense to me. But they're not going for it."

Not yet, anyway. Musical fashion, like other sorts, travels in cycles, and if a mini-Klezmer revival has already given way to a Dateline story on the new youth interest in traditional swing, at least a spurt of renewed interest in tough fusion can't be far down the road. Sheppard, who's convinced, with contagious enthusiasm, that his musical peak is still in front of him, figures he's got plenty of time to wait. And he's not about to go chasing after whatever's hot at the moment. "I don't do any work that I don't enjoy. I don't play anywhere with people that I don't enjoy playing with. I figure that I'm old enough that I've paid my dues. I've played enough bullshit."

It's a bit frustrating for a musician who, when he was hanging with the New York in-crowd, frequently appeared in Downbeat magazine's yearly tally of the country's best vibists, to be unable to find an audience adventurous enough to match his playing.

"I can't play jazz for most people. It's too strong. It's a high-energy thing. Even the jazz people that work in the jazz clubs -- it would scare 'em. They're just not up for it, it's too much for them. And the rock places, I've talked to the managers, and they all like me, they come to see me, but they say their crowd wouldn't go for it. I don't know whether it's too sophisticated or above their heads or intellectual or what. I don't think of it as intellectual -- it's emotional music. It's exciting. I will never understand marketing," he laughs. "Never."

The Harry Sheppard Fusion Band performs at 9:30 p.m. Wednesday, June 22 at Munchies, 1617 Richmond, 528-3545. $3.

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