As a first-call L.A. saxophonist, Bob Sheppard has famously toured with Steely Dan, played with loads of notable jazzers and marquee-name pop stars, and has appeared on—by one count—more than 100 movie and TV soundtracks. Between supporting others and teaching, Sheppard has only been able to record a handful of albums as a leader in nearly three decades. That’s hard to believe, given the polished, musically fertile The Fine Line, a provocative collaboration with Dutch bassist Jasper Somsen.
Joined by pianist John Beasley, drummer Kendrick Scott, and several guests, Sheppard and Somsen take on a mix of lively originals and freshened-up standards. And there’s an unexpected highlight, an aired-out, reharmonized version of ‘60s Philly-soul classic “People Make the World Go ‘Round.” It’s juiced by Sheppard’s slinky lead and pensive-to-rambunctious soloing, along with electric bassist Benjamin Shepherd’s fluid, funky lines. A nod to Sheppard’s roots? Also in the category of instantly familiar is “Thanks for the Memory,” forever associated with Bob Hope, and a favorite of Wayne Shorter’s; Sheppard’s horn here is suitably brawny and agile, and the tune opens up for an engaging solo by Somsen.
Sheppard uses soprano to find new colors in a waltzing version of “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was,” and leans hard into his tenor on the melody of “A Flower Is a Lovesome Thing.” His originals are equally compelling, starting with the opener “Edge of Trouble,” in which vibraphonist Simon Moullier doubles Sheppard’s speedy, curlicued lines and later embarks on an audacious improvisation. The quiet balladry of the title track is enhanced by the wordless vocals of Maria Puga Lareo (the leader’s wife) and stacked flutes behind Sheppard’s alto. “Joegenic,” also with Moullier, thrives on a rising-falling theme and start-stop rhythms, and the breakneck “Above & Beyond,” Somsen’s only composition on the album, gains much from Scott’s hard-driving swing, creative fills, and invigorating solo turn.
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