EXCLUSIVE: Jake Schepps on New Quintet Album 'Entwined', Commissioning Gyan Riley and Marc Mellits, Béla Bartók vs. String Bands, Ship in the Clouds Tour, Brazilian Choro Music

By Maria Jean Sullivan on Mar 28, 2015 02:04 AM EDT

Banjo player Jake Schepps sure is opening up the possibilities for his instrument: contemporary classical bluegrass? Yes, a thousand times so. In fact, his latest album, Entwined (Fine Mighty), is the perfect manifestation of a seemingly non-existent genre. Featuring new compositions from the likes of Marc Mellits, Gyan Riley, Matt McBane and Matt Flinner, Schepps' traditional, five-band string band sounds anything but trad here. Curious how Schepps & Co. got wise, Classicalite got on the horn with this Scruggs-slash-Stravinsky to talk process, commissioning and what's next for him, instrument and ensemble.

Classicalite: Walk me through the origin story of your new album, Entwined.  Why these composers?

Jake Schepps: At some point a few years ago, I stumbled upon Marc Mellits' album he recorded, I think, in 2005. It's called Real Quiet. I fell in love with that album, was listening to it a bunch and, eventually, I had the idea of contacting him. I thought about playing one of those pieces, but then I felt like it would actually be more fun and interesting and educational for me to work with him--to write something for the string band format. And Marc was kind enough to embark on that madcap endeavor.

Clite: And from there, you just sort of naturally brought in composers like Matt McBane, Gyan Riley, Matt Flinner? Was it really that organic?

JS: Pretty much. Marc Mellits wrote a piece, and then the next piece I commissioned was from Matt McBane. He fronts his own band, Build, and he really had something. Each of the composers that I contacted all had an aspect of their music that I could see myself playing. Or that I had a desire to play. Something kind of deep in there that was similar to the string band world I’d come from. A lot of the music McBane writes for that group really sounds like he’s writing for a band, rather than a classical ensemble. Build has piano, violin, cello, bass and drums, so that’s what drew me to McBane. He’s really an extremely detail-oriented person and composer. And there’s just an astounding amount of detail that he rolled into that piece.

Gyan Riley was in the Modern Mandolin Quartet with Matt Flinner, so Flinner turned me onto him. I bought a bunch of his music and just loved it. What I appreciate is all the different composers came at these pieces from somewhat of a different angle. Not dramatically different angles. He’s not of the minimalist vain like his dad [Terry Riley], and he’s maybe a little more maximalist.

My idea of this project was to juxtapose a composer within the kind of string band musical world with a classically-trained composer. And Flinner has an incredible composition background, both as a performer and improviser. His group, the Matt Flinner Trio, do what they call "music du jour tours," where each day they write a new piece that they premiere that night on stage. They have done well over a hundred music du jour shows at this point, so they have this big catalogue of tunes. And I know Matt loves to write and perform new music and create new music. He was, both as a collaborator and a member of my quintet, a good fit for this to write something longer--[a work] that you couldn’t conceptualize and execute within a day.

And the other thing about Flinner, while he’s a phenomenal mandolin player, he’s also a world-class banjo player. Of the instruments within the string band, the banjo is certainly the most enigmatic of those instruments, probably the least familiar for a classically-trained composer. The banjo was a little more challenging for me. I would get together with them and show them the stuff, send them examples and transcribe things. Whereas Flinner really understands the banjo, and what it’s strengths are. How it works. He would write lines that were certainly the most idiomatic for the banjo.

Clite: Together, with the four composers you've assembled on it, would you say that this record running parallel to the Béla Bartók stuff you have done? Or is it a kind of answer?

JS: I actually think it feels like the next logical step, more than either one of those. The premise is, well, I was curious how a classically-trained composer would treat folk music. Because, essentially, in many regards, I’m a folk musician. While I play all sorts of music, and some of it may be a little more literate than a from-the-hills type of bluegrasser, I’ve learned lots and lots of folk idioms. And I’ve learned a lot by ear, instead of notation. I spend many, many hours jamming in the campgrounds of festivals, swapping tunes with various people. Learning in that way.

And Bartók, being one of the world’s first ethnomusicologists, he collected thousands and thousands of tunes from Romania, Hungary and Bulgaria. And he would transcribe and set those. So, it was a reinterpretation of Bartók’s interpretation of folk music. I also approached it from what I consider a very modern string band approach--which is, for some of the pieces, we wrote out changes and took solos and improvised. We were much more free with it than a classical ensemble might be. I think one of my goals is to learn and grow as a musician. And I think through this process of learning all this music by Béla Bartók--recording it and putting it out there--there was this kind of an expansion of the musical palette available for a string band. The people that actually listen to my record would hear new ideas in a more extensive harmonic palette that they might not otherwise access. You know, from just listening to bluegrass and learning fiddle tunes.

Clite: OK, then, where does your band, the Jake Schepps Quintet, fit into that vision? Or it separate?

JS: The music--the kind of quintessential bluegrass string band founded by Bill Monroe--was a quintet of these instruments: the banjo, mandolin, guitar, violin and bass. I felt like for these first-ever, or what I think are the first-ever compositions for this setting, it felt important to me for it to be quintet music. Because that’s the iconic bluegrass sound. So to speak. There’s certainly been dozens of variations on those instruments. And that’s by no means the only way to create bluegrass music. But that was initially founded by Bill Monroe. So, for me, this was the reason I had those composers write quintet music for those individual instruments. The Jake Schepps Quintet is the ideal vehicle to perform this music. All of the musicians that I work with are--all of them went to music school except for me. They all can read notation, and I think this is a challenge for all of us. Each person brings strengths to the table.

There is an aspect of playing longform, through-composed music that pushes all of us. Because most of us have a bluegrass and folky background, it levels the playing field. To a certain degree. They were all in. And it really allowed for very open communication among all of us. The band, they can all provide and play fiddle tunes and all sorts of many, many different genres of music. They have many different loves of many different genres of music. Part of my idea with the quintet is really to have a bluegrass band, not just in the instruments, but a band that can play it like that--approach music like that.

Clite: It's nothing if not versatile, no?

JS: My hope is that it’s like a prism. Similiar to the great mandolin player Chris Feeley, who recorded the Bach solo violin partitas on mandolin. Instead of violin. It shines a light on those pieces in a new way, that you get to hear things that you might not get to otherwise. What I hope that this recording and this music does is shine a light onto these instruments, as it’s a very viable ensemble that can do much more than just play "Nine-Pound Hammer." Or whatever the bluegrass standard is. As well, it shines a light on these composers.

Clite: Any new work coming in with Ship in the Clouds?

JS: We have some shows we’re going to be playing in Colorado in May, but that’s all that’s on the horizon. The guitarist is actually very busy. He runs an online music school called Peghead Nation. I think that that is consuming a fair bit of his time these days, as it gets going. Hopefully, there will be more Ship in the Clouds in the future. And a record. But right now, [pauses] there’s a lot going on with the Jake Schepps Quintet.

Clite: There's enough schedules to coordinate, brand new string band music to create there.

JS: Exactly. I think the Jake Schepps Quintet will do another record of commissions at some point. But maybe in a couple years. I’m starting work on a trio record, which would include Ship in the Clouds.

Clite: Ah, do share.

JS: Yeah. the trio record would be a variety of string band trio music. And we're going to do a whole spectrum of material, ranging from bluegrass and fiddle tunes, as well as a piece by Purcell, one of the fantasias. And some Brazilian choro music, which is fantastic. It’s incredible stuff. I’ve been deep in love with that for a long time, trying to find some sort of proper outlet for recording it and getting out to perform it. This may have a commission or two on it, or other original pieces--definitely some more modern classical.

Clite: But with a more "world music" tinge?

JS: I’m still kind of mapping it out. It's not quite done. Those are all the things that I’m in love with, and I hope they go on it. But I want to map them out and make sure it all makes a coherent musical statement, instead of just a kitchen sink of my favorite music from the last five years. So, that part is still coming, but I’m confident that something like Purcell--written 400 years ago--juxtaposed with a Brazilian choro piece from 1920 will not sound as disturbed as it might in describing it. That’s my hope.

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TagsEXCLUSIVE, Classicalite Q&A, Jake Schepps, Entwined, Gyan Riley, Bela Bartok, Choro, Mark Mellits

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