Human Activity Suite
Guitarist Brad Shepik has studied a broad range of world musics; Human Activity Suite is the payoff. But what is ostensibly a response to global warming has more in common with Ellington’s travelogue suites than Mingus or Roach’s socially conscious works. The topical aspect doesn’t fly, but the music does.
Shepik’s musical representations of the seven continents succeed, not least because of their textures. Shepik adds trumpeter Ralph Alessi and bassist Drew Gress to his regular trio (pianist Gary Versace, drummer Tom Rainey); adds organ and accordion to Versace’s duties; and plays tambura and saz alongside acoustic and electric guitars. This palette flourishes on “Lima (South America),” trumpet and accordion blending into Latin dance, and “Stir (Antarctica),” with tambura and bass against psychedelic organ to evoke glacial stillness. The unusual instruments aren’t always the most effective: “Not So Far (Australia)” captures Down Under’s sweeping oceanfront and rugged wilderness with Versace playing baroque piano and Shepik doing prog-rock electric guitar (often in unison with Alessi’s limpid trumpet, recalling Zappa’s fusion work).
However, the suite’s “commentary” movements misfire. The 13/8 rhythm and swishing sax of “Current” vaguely suggest moving water, but nothing as powerful as oceanic currents. “Human Activity” has a sinister minor key and thrashing rock rhythm, but also sweet piano, and trumpet and electric guitar with as much loftiness as urgency—not the dire warning needed here. These pieces are as beautiful and architecturally impressive as the continental movements. But for its dysfunctional framework, Human Activity Suite would be sublime.