That's hard to argue. The tight spools of gray hair atop his head and leathery, wrinkled features notwithstanding, Sheppard, who's chugging along like a mallet-wielding locomotive these days, looks fantastic. At an age when many folks are eyeing retirement communities, this irrepressible Massachusetts native is just getting started.
Busier than ever, Sheppard performs upward of five nights a week at the River Cafe, benjy's and The French Quarter, taking it to his amplified vibes for diners and dancers alike. Casual audiences may marvel at the way Sheppard's hands seem to float across the surface of his custom-made vibraphone, each bar of which is fitted with its own electronic pickup that gives him the ability to treat listeners to a menu of effects (wah-wah, delay, phase shifting) more commonly associated with guitarists. It's a safe bet that most, however, have no inkling of Sheppard's extensive musical past -- or that his CDs can be found in retail outlets worldwide. They look on and they applaud. Possibly, they might even ask Sheppard if he has a cassette that they could buy to take home.
"People are amazed when I tell them that I have CDs -- and that they're in the stores," Sheppard laughs.
His latest disc, Standards Unleashed, is his fourth for Houston's Justice Records, and, like the others, it was produced by label president Randall Jamail, who cut his teeth in the studio recording Sheppard. As the name implies, Standards Unleashed is a collection of old favorites -- everything from Duke Ellington's classic "I Got It Bad and That Ain't Good" to the ubiquitous standard "Body and Soul" to the Irving Berlin chestnut "Always" -- given a loosey-goosey treatment by Sheppard and his band. Every track is a first take, and while the production is exacting, the feel -- and, in some cases, the execution -- is anything but.
"There are notes I wished I hadn't played," Sheppard recalls of the CD, which was recorded in April 1991 but was shelved in favor of This-a-Way, That-a-Way, a more contemporary Sheppard outing recorded around the same time. "Randall thought the market [then] was better for fusion."
Sheppard and Jamail have been friends since 1986, when they met at a macrobiotics center where the vibist was doing volunteer work. At the time, gigs were sporadic for Sheppard, who was just getting adjusted to Houston's jazz scene. He had moved to town from New York to care for his daughter, who was terminally ill with cancer. After she died, Sheppard, who had fallen in love with the city, stuck around.
"There was nothing left for me to do in New York, except to prove that I could still work," Sheppard says. "The days were gone. Back in the '50s, I was considered a huge success. But all it was was just barely living."
While Sheppard downplays that time in his life, the reality of it was actually quite impressive. A member of the house rhythm section at New York's famed Metropole club, Sheppard had an unusually tight grasp of the vibraphone's role in swing and big band jazz, and bandleaders took notice. In the '50s, he played with the likes of Coleman Hawkins and Billie Holiday (in the last live performances before her death), and in the '60s he landed gigs with Benny Goodman and Doc Severinsen.
But by the mid-'60s, with jazz's popularity waning, work was hard to come by, and Sheppard was cutting hair to get by. It was during this period that he came up with the idea for his electrified vibraphone.
"At the time I had given up the swing thing, and I was hanging out with all the loft players on the Lower East Side. Free music, totally free -- off the wall. I used to go see Jimi Hendrix," he recalls. "It wasn't my thing, but he was opening up a new dimension to sound. [And I thought,] 'How the hell can I do that?' "
While there have been alterations, improvements and streamlining along the way, Sheppard is essentially feeding off that same idea to this day -- and you can hear it on each of his Justice releases. From the Latin-tinged Viva Brazil to the fusion-inspired This-a-Way, That-a-Way and Points of View, the sound is unmistakable: a fluid, percussive blast of technology, flash and finesse that Sheppard has said can "blow any guitarist away."
"I use a very small mallet these days," he says. "But I can still dig in and feel good about it."
A group conunD.R.U.M.... A representative for D.R.U.M., this year's Press Music Awards winners in the Best Reggae/World Music category, phoned last week to advise me of a few errors in our June 10 profile of the band. The discrepancies, I was told, included mentions of a cassette that simply didn't exist and appearances at two festivals that the group never played.
Upon further inquiry, though, it appears accuracy isn't the only thing in dispute here. The band's percussionist/spokesman, Kenyha Shabazz, recently left the group to pursue, full-time, his work with the more Cuban-oriented Gemini. And although Shabazz did appear on-stage at the Press awards ceremony with the rest of D.R.U.M., evidently the split wasn't completely amicable.
"I quit to start another band, and I took the music with me," says Shabazz. "[The problem] was between me and the lead singer [Alafia Gaidi]. Other people are making it their problem."
Primary among those "other people" is D.R.U.M.'s new management, which claims that Shabazz has been spreading lies about the band since his departure, an accusation Shabazz vehemently denies: "I'm at peace, man."
As for the alleged discrepancies in our profile, the only one that proved inaccurate was the claim that D.R.U.M. had performed at the African Street Festival in New York. Apparently, Shabazz was there, but the rest of the group wasn't.
-- Hobart Rowland