The distinction between East Coast and West Coast jazz is probably an outdated oversimplification. Yet it is hard not to think of Close Your Eyes as quintessentially Californian. Its airiness and clarity insinuate ocean breezes and sunlight.
Bob Sheppard of Los Angeles is one of the most skilled multireed players in jazz. He is a studio musician, professor, clinician and first-call sideman (Freddie Hubbard, Joni Mitchell, Steely Dan, James Taylor). Close Your Eyes is a rare project under his own name, and the most complete document to date of his art.
It is polished, sophisticated, intricately organized music. Alan Pasqua or John Beasley play piano and B3. Gabe Noel/Antonio Sánchez/Walter Rodriguez are on bass/drums/percussion. Guitarist Larry Koonse and trumpeter Alex Sipiagen join on two numbers each. But it doesn’t sound like a small-group session because Sheppard, who usually solos on tenor saxophone, overdubs himself on six other woodwind instruments to create layered horn backgrounds. Every tune is arranged into a tight, multifaceted design.
People (East Coast people?) who require lots of blood and guts in their jazz might find performances like “Surface Tension” and “Brain Fog” and “Fast Company” too intellectual. But even such charts, with their high degree of difficulty, their tricky meters and clever unisons, get down to business when the solos kick in. Sipiagen and Koonse and Pasqua wait for their moments, then kill. Every Sheppard improvisation is a unique revelation of unpredictable finesse. In a lucid tenor saxophone tone, he dances among ideas like Baryshnikov.
Kenny Barron’s “Phantoms” is perfectly quiet and ominous, but the best track is “Goodbye.” Like every piece on this album, it is precisely calibrated, but only to set up Sheppard, whose smeary, floating solo is an elegant, passionate iteration of melancholy.