After quadrennial coffee, Gypsy jazzman tastes life at Moody’s Bistro
January 12, 2012
Snow showers and throngs of presidential candidates trailed by press corps covered New Hampshire while a guitarist sheltered in his Portsmouth home practiced his craft.
Richard “Shepp” Sheppard set down his instrument to talk on the telephone with a reporter about his first California tour with his gypsy jazz trio, Ameranouche, which plays Friday and Saturday, Jan. 13-14, at Moody’s Bistro in Truckee.
“Every four years you get a chance to get a free cup of coffee,” Sheppard said. “It doesn’t matter if they’re a Democrat or a Republican, they all hand out coffee. So I go get some coffee.”
For years Sheppard’s livelihood was straight-ahead jazz. But lately it is gypsy jazz, and he has released three albums since 2006.
Sheppard is passionate and emotional about gypsy jazz, but it goes deeper than that.
“The deep serenity of intellectual prose is the vessel by which we breathe and feel and love,” Sheppard disclosed before clarifying in his native New Jersey vernacular, “you gotta know what’s going on.”
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Awareness for Sheppard took a while, but the fascination started early, age 3 to be precise.
“I saw Dizzy Gillespie on TV and I couldn’t sleep for a couple of days,” he said.
“I was just blown away. I was a little kid. All my brothers and cousins were laughing at this dude with his head blowing up every time he blew the trumpet but I just couldn’t get this music out of my head. It rocked my world.”
A “Hootenanny” television broadcast of Joe “King of the Strings” Maphis a few years later was the penultimate epiphany.
Sheppard had his first guitar when he was 9, and he learned songs by his and his father’s favorites in country: Merle Haggard, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash. He later advanced to Chet Atkins.
The final epiphanic occurrence was when he heard Django Reinhardt.
“Django just tied it all together,” he said. “That was the wellspring where all these guys were coming from. Even with Dizzy. Basically you play like Satch (cornet-trumpet player Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong) or you play like Django if you play guitar.”
Reinhardt died in 1953 and it was difficult to find the Belgium guitarist’s records in the late 1970s and ’80s, but when computers advanced in the early 1990s, Sheppard acquired a voluminous collection of gypsy jazz music, especially Reinhardt’s.
By then Sheppard already was an accomplished guitarist who studied for five years with his friend from Philadelphia Pat Martino, who, Sheppard revealed in a little-known and intriguing fact, had learned from Wes Montgomery.
The light went on when Sheppard realized what influenced Joe Maphis when he heard Reinhardt’s “The Sheik of Araby.”
“I kind of lost it,” Sheppard said. “I went away for a while. I went into the Django chamber. You go into the Django chamber and you realize just how large it is, and you allow yourself to get bounced around in there, and once you get out of there, you sufficiently realize you’ve experienced something really, really great.”
While Sheppard’s band plays some Django songs, Ameranouche is about culture.
“He was from the Manouche tribe,” Sheppard said. “You see this is way more than Django. It’s about a people and culture. It’s an amazing realization. You’re dealing with hundreds of years of creativity. The great thing is it’s not exclusive. It’s inclusive for all people, so an American boy from Jersey can be OK with it.”
Reinhardt’s relatives have endorsed Ameranouche,” Sheppard said.
Rhythm guitarist Zach Person and the band’s new bassist, Michael Harrist, are products of Marlboro Music School, and Sheppard is a Berklee grad.
“Our ability to communicate is multileveled, really nice, actually really comfortable,” he said. They understand gypsy music, which Sheppard calls “musical joy.” A song can stir memories of a moment in time, like smelling ocean air, being with a friend or eating a peach for the first time.
“You have the intellectual and the ephemeral, and the balancing point between the two opposites is where a hot moment of magic occurs. Really, the only thing that matters is the moment.
“The money and politicians running around handing out coffee, that kind of matters. But what really matters is family, friends and experiences.”