Jake Schepps has made a name for himself as a banjo renaissance man, an artist with not only an adroit touch on his instrument but an intrepid, imaginative vision for contemporary stringband music. Although a student of traditional and progressive bluegrass styles as a player, Schepps has stretched beyond those genres to take his place alongside the Punch Brothers, mandolin ace (and frequent collaborator) Matt Flinner and other notables in a field the Colorado-based banjoist likes to call simply "new acoustic music." Schepps – spurred to create new possibilities for the stringband of five-string banjo, fiddle, guitar, mandolin and double-bass – creates ingenious arrangements of decidedly non-bluegrass material. His venturesome new album, An Evening in the Village: The Music of Béla Bartók (to be released on Oct. 6, 2011), finds common ground between the piquant beauty of the great Hungarian composer's take on Eastern European folk melodies and the big-sky vibrancy of new American acoustic music.
Co-produced by Juno Award-winning banjoist Jayme Stone (along with Schepps and Flinner), An Evening in the Village blends crooked folk-art mystery with East-meets-West, out-under-the-stars funkiness. It builds on the achievement of Schepps' previous recording, the Flinner-produced Ten Thousand Leaves, which was hailed by Bluegrass Unlimited as "an album that intrigues, entertains and reveals more of itself with each play." That disc included his striking arrangement of Astor Piazzolla's "Todo Buenos Aires" and the banjoist's original three-movement suite "In the American West," inspired by Richard Avedon photographs. JazzReview.com called Ten Thousand Leaves one of the 10 best recordings of 2007, while it added: "Updating the stringband tradition, this superb collection straddles a fence between jazz and bluegrass, both musical schools that require uncommon command."
Seeing his treatment of "Todo Buenos Aires" as a watershed for both his arranging capabilities and his musical world view, Schepps says: "Piazzolla was one of those rare people who can see a world in a grain of sand. A lot of us would've thought that the tango was a closed book by the time he came along, but Piazzolla took this simple dance form and transported it to places other people didn't envision. That kind of musician is inspiring to me, someone who takes something established and just blows the doors off it."
An even more inspirational figure for Schepps, Bartók wasn't only at the forefront of early 20th-century modernism as a composer and pianist; he was also a pioneering ethnomusicologist who collected more than 8,000 folk songs from Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and beyond. He documented these folk songs for posterity's sake while also using them to seed his own style as a composer, elaborating on the tunes melodically, rhythmically and harmonically in such sets of pieces as Hungarian Sketches, Romanian Folk Dances, Six Dances in Bulgarian Rhythm, Mikrokosmos and the 44 Duos for Two Violins. In a quote Schepps admires as a motto, Bartók said that if a musician "allows himself to surrender to the impressions of living folk music, and he can mirror the effect of these impressions in his work, then. . . he has recorded a piece of life."
Whereas Bartók was a classically trained composer who reached into the folk world, Schepps is a folk musician who aimed to come to grips with Bartók's modernism. It was a process that exponentially expanded Schepps’s musical vocabulary, reflected in such treatments on the album as the haunting, full-moon atmosphere in "Melody," the jumping hooks of "Romanian Whirling Dance" and the gorgeously bittersweet title song "An Evening in the Village" – with that boundary-crossing arrangement making it sound as if Bartók might have traveled to Appalachia on one of his song-catching expeditions. Schepps says: “I think Bartók's music sounds like some of the best new acoustic music I've ever heard: stunning writing, highly creative harmonic surprises, bold arrangements, and it’s chock full of twists and turns. We tried to keep as much of that intent as we could, and then be ourselves on top of it all."
The "we" Schepps speaks of are his close cohorts in the Expedition Quartet, the core players on An Evening in the Village (as with Ten Thousand Leaves): violinist Ryan Drickey, guitarist Grant Gordy and bassist Ian Hutchison. Together since 2006, the members of the Expedition Quartet are ever-keen students of folk music (not to mention jazz and classical), having spent years jamming in festival campgrounds and old-time fiddle gatherings. The fluent musicianship and collaborative feel they have developed give their performances a distinctive spirit. Schepps and company have played in venues across the country from bluegrass festivals to jazz clubs to concert halls; in 2010 at the First Annual Terem Quartet Crossover Competition in St. Petersburg, Russia, the EQ performed with the Ars Nova Singers in a 30-minute work titled “The Bluegrass Mass.”
Explaining the drive for the Expedition Quartet's brand of adventurous stringband music, Schepps says: “These musicians I play with work in a lot of genres beyond bluegrass – they perform with tango bands, soul singers, philharmonic orchestras, the guitarist and bassist host a jazz jam in Denver, and our fiddler just received a Fulbright scholarship to study Swedish folk music in Sweden. So we love a lot of music and hear the possibilities." This summer and fall, the band will perform the new Bartók arrangements alongside original compositions and pieces by Piazzolla, plus stringband versions of the urban Brazilian folk music known as choro, one of Schepps' latest obsessions.
Schepps, 41, was a later-than-usual-bloomer on banjo, not starting on the instrument until he was 21 (inspired by seeing a Béla Fleck & the Flecktones concert). In two decades of music-making, Schepps has come to see the untapped potential of the stringband as a multifarious vehicle. He says, "Part of the premise for the Bartók record is viewing the stringband as an incredibly sonorous group of instruments that fit so well together, not unlike a classical string quartet or a jazz piano trio. But relative to those formats, the stringband is unexplored – so I want to explore the different places this sort of group can travel."
Schepps lives in Boulder, Colorado with his wife and two young daughters, and he pursues another profession besides music: He teaches classes for the National Outdoor Leadership School's Wilderness Medicine Institute, having done so around the world for the past decade. "Wilderness medicine is first-aid for mountain guides and trip leaders," he explains. "The premise is: What do they do in an ambulance and how can we improvise some of that from a backpack? It isn't making poultices out of lichen or tree bark and packing that into a wound." Thematically, it ties into music for him, Schepps says: "I need to draw on some of the same resources when I teach as when I play music – the improvisation, the energy, the engagement with people. We work from a specific curriculum, so it's about finding creativity within a certain set of parameters. The challenge of how to make this my own and present it in a dynamic way is never ending. The challenge with music is similar."
Featured on the July 2008 cover of Banjo Newsletter, the banjo community's premier print journal, Schepps is also a frequent contributor to the magazine. He is also at work on an instruction manual called The Modern Banjo Toolbox: A Compendium of Advanced Banjo Techniques. It will feature contributions from more than 20 of today's top progressive banjo players.