Mid-afternoon, Houston jazz vibraphonist Harry Sheppard is darting around in an empty corner of the River Cafe, lugging small amplifiers and unpacking his custom-built instrument for another of his regular Tuesday night solo gigs at the swank Montrose eatery. Although Sheppard's got the short, curly, white hair of a 66-year-old, there's an energetic spark in his eye that makes a reporter less than half his age feel tired. He's bragging about his pipeless vibraphone, each bar custom-fitted with an individual electronic pickup that allows him to control the instrument's volume without easing off his aggressive style. The built-in mikes also allow Sheppard to run his instrument through a battery of digital effects -- delays, phase shifters, fuzz/octave boxes and wah-wah -- unavailable to an acoustic player. The effects are necessary tools of Sheppard's preferred fusion style, which does not include the sort of calm, synthesized wash so endemic in contemporary jazz fusion. "With this," he says, pointing to his instrument, "I can blow any guitarist off the stage. I love that."
The self-taught Sheppard grew up in tiny Worcester, Massachusetts, before moving to New York City, where his playing quickly collected enough status to land him gigs with such jazz notables as Coleman Hawkins and Billie Holiday. Sheppard remembers playing on Barbra Streisand's first-ever television performance, and in the 1960s he landed stints with Doc Severinsen and Benny Goodman. By the early '80s, Sheppard says, the long work was starting to pay dividends with increased recognition and a glowing New York Times review that he still includes proudly in his press kit. "After all those years, it was catching on."
But despite the burgeoning limelight, Sheppard uprooted himself to Houston in 1985 to care for his daughter, who lost a battle with cancer about a year later. "It's tough to go in a different direction," he says of the move, "but to this day I've never given it a second thought."
Sheppard met then-lawyer, now-Justice Records honcho, Randall Jamail at a Houston macrobiotics center where both Sheppard and Jamail's wife-to-be worked, and from there a friendship developed that led, Jamail says, both to the formation of Justice Records and to the company's only lifetime contract. At the time, says Sheppard, Jamail's interest in music leaned toward his own folky songwriting and singing -- a bent Sheppard kindly tried to discourage in favor of Jamail's production talents. As Sheppard tells the story, in 1989, 30 days after a conversation in which he gently convinced Jamail that not even voice lessons would be likely to salvage a singing career, Jamail leased the first offices of Justice Records. Jamail denies any singing aspirations; as he remembers it, what Sheppard talked him out of was continuing his legal career, though the fact remains that Jamail doesn't frequent the city's open mikes.
Appropriately enough, Sheppard's Viva Brazil CD was one of Justice's earliest products. Drawing on Sheppard's experiences performing in Brazil and featuring Sheppard's own Latin-tinged compositions, the disk was geared toward taking advantage of the lambada craze that didn't quite happen in the late '80s. In fact, a first pressing frighteningly named Viva Lambada was scrapped when Jamail got cold feet over the marketing cheese of the title.
Sheppard/Justice project number two, This-a-Way That-a-Way, was released in '91 and featured Sheppard's growing interest in fusion. Jamail brought in a cast of session players from around the country to support Sheppard's sound, but neglected to tell them much about the gig, aside from Sheppard's '60s stint with Benny Goodman. The session men apparently thought they were being flown to Houston to prop up an aging swing revivalist.
"The drummer brought just a light jazz kit and the guitarist didn't even have a wah-wah," Sheppard laughs. "They were totally unprepared for the modern fusion thing. They didn't know I was going to be a space cadet."
But despite the equipment shortage, the players' almost complete mutual unfamiliarity and the fact that the band went into the studio for two days with mere tunes and not so much as a single arrangement worked out beforehand, the This-a-Way That-a-Way session gelled into an eclectic and supremely listenable exercise in group interplay, with Sheppard's unflaggingly fluent vibe work providing the disk's highlights. Almost a year later, the same band assembled to do sessions for the as-yet-unreleased Points of View, long-shelved because of what Sheppard and Justice perceive as a downturn in the market for any contemporary jazz stronger than simpering. Points of View is now planned for release sometime in the spring of '95, and Sheppard says he's got another two CDs' worth of material from similar sessions that's yet to be edited.
"The fusion market right now is not really moving," says Sheppard. "It's not dead, but almost. There are no stations playing that kind of music. I don't care whether it comes out now or next year or the year after that, because it's not gonna be stale. It's good stuff. It's right on top of what's going on."
But if the fusion market temporarily dried up on Sheppard's projects, it hasn't kept him from working. This past year he took over a series of now-defunct big-band gigs at Birraporetti's downtown location with a hand-picked 12-piece band that broke attendance records. "We were a big-band jazz band. All the other bands are nostalgia bands. We didn't do any Miller or Dorsey, more early Count Basie stuff, more blues-oriented with lots of solos."
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."
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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.