Hailing from Boulder, Colorado, banjo pioneer Jake Schepps consistently and confidently “has the excitement of true originality” (AllMusic.com). While his nimble touch and deep sensitivity to the five-string banjo’s idiomatic qualities are deeply rooted in traditional and progressive bluegrass styles, it’s his insatiable curiosity and open spirit that have brought him to the exciting frontier of new acoustic music, alongside Punch Brothers, mandolin master David Grisman, and violinist Darol Anger.
A champion of the myriad possibilities of the string band, Schepps has made a name for himself as an ingenious arranger and performer of decidedly non-bluegrass material, a reputation that has evolved and deepened over the course of three critically-acclaimed albums – the jazz-inflected Ten Thousand Leaves (2007), An Evening in the Village: The Music of Béla Bartok (2011) and Entwined, a collection of string band music by contemporary classical composers due out in early 2015.
Inspired to play the banjo at the relatively late age of 21 after seeing Béla Fleck & the Flecktones perform, Schepps has spent the past two decades blazing new trails and making music that explores the massive yet untapped potential of the string band, which he describes as “an incredibly sonorous group of instruments that fit so well together, not unlike a classical string quartet or a jazz piano trio. I want to explore the different places this sort of group can travel.”
Far from a lone journeyman, Schepps is part of an eclectic and endlessly innovative group of musicians that make up the vibrant new acoustic scene, characterized by fluent musicianship and true community. Frequent collaborators, which are essential to Schepps’s intrepid style of music-making, include the members of his quintet, mandolinist Matt Flinner, fiddler Ryan Drickey, guitarist Ross Martin and bassist Eric Thorin, in addition to projects with Grant Gordy, Enion Pelta-Tiller, Scott Nygaard, Alisa Rose, Andy Reiner, and more . Schepps and company have played in venues across the country from bluegrass festivals to jazz clubs to concert halls.
Schepps lives in Boulder, Colorado with his wife and two young daughters, where he also teaches for the National Outdoor Leadership School’s Wilderness Medicine Institute. “Wilderness medicine is first-aid for mountain guides and trip leaders,” he explains. “The premise is: What do they do in an ambulance and how can we improvise some of that from a backpack? It isn’t making poultices out of lichen or tree bark and packing that into a wound.” Thematically, it ties into music for him, Schepps says: “I need to draw on some of the same resources when I teach as when I play music – the improvisation, the energy, the engagement with people. We work from a specific curriculum, so it’s about finding creativity within a certain set of parameters. The challenge of how to make this my own and present it in a dynamic way is never ending. The challenge with music is similar.”
Schepps is also a frequent contributor to Banjo Newsletter (he was also featured on the July 2008 cover), No Depression, and Bluegrass Today. He is also at work on an instruction manual called The Modern Banjo Toolbox: A Compendium of Advanced Banjo Techniques. It will feature contributions from more than 20 of today’s top progressive banjo players.
Schepps’s style—emanating from his joyous, freewheeling spirit and erudite bent—has developed over the course of three distinctive albums, each a compelling exploration into the uncharted territories of string band music. Ten Thousand Leaves, released in 2007, was named one of the 10 best recordings of that year by JazzReview.com, which wrote “this superb collection straddles a fence between jazz and bluegrass, both musical schools that require uncommon command.” Produced by Matt Flinner, Ten Thousand Leaves featured Schepps’ striking arrangement of Astor Piazzolla’s “Todo Buenos Aires” and the banjoist’s original three-movement suite “In the American West,” inspired by Richard Avedon photographs. Bluegrass Unlimitedpraised it as “an album that intrigues, entertains and reveals more of itself with each play.”
Seeing his treatment of “Todo Buenos Aires” as a watershed for both his arranging capabilities and his musical world view, Schepps says: “Piazzolla was one of those rare people who can see a world in a grain of sand. A lot of people would’ve thought that the tango was a closed book by the time he came along, but Piazzolla took this simple dance form and transported it to places other people didn’t envision. That kind of musician is inspiring to me, someone who takes something established and just blows the doors off it.”
On his critically-praised sophomore release, An Evening in the Village, Schepps delved into the sound world of another historic boundary buster, Hungarian composer Béla Bartók. Bartók was famously inspired by the folk melodies of Eastern Europe, traveling to remote villages to document the rustic music-making of the peasants which would form the foundation of his own undeniably modernist compositions. Schepps infuses the piquant beauty of the Eastern European folk melodies that fascinated Bartók with the big-sky vibrancy of the new acoustic scene, creating what Pop Matterscalled “a masterful musical exhibit that bridges the New and Old Worlds as well as new and old music.”
The process of getting inside the prismatic layers of Bartók’s modernism exponentially expanded Schepps’s musical vocabulary and Schepps’s inventive arrangements made it sound as if Bartók might have traveled to Appalachia on one of his song-catching expeditions. Schepps says: “I think Bartók’s music sounds like some of the best new acoustic music I’ve ever heard: stunning writing, highly creative harmonic surprises, bold arrangements, and it’s chock full of twists and turns. We tried to keep as much of that intent as we could, and then be ourselves on top of it all.”
Schepps continues his journey on his newest album, Entwined, an ambitious collaboration with some of the most distinctive composers of the contemporary classical music scene including Marc Mellits, Matt McBane and Gyan Riley, plus a groundbreaking new work by Matt Flinner. For Schepps, this project was a natural continuation of the work he had done with Bartók.
“Bartók wrote music based on folk melodies, played on classical instruments, and I think turning this formula around—having classically-trained composers write for a combination of instruments usually associated with folk music—seemed like a fascinating next step in finding new sounds for the string band,” says Schepps. With ambitious new pieces by Mellits (Flatiron), McBane (Drawn) and Riley (Stumbling Smooth) set alongside Matt Flinner’s most complex work to-date, the four-movement work Migrations, a millennium of classical music collides with the American melting pot of string band music, releasing a massive amount of new energy into the musical cosmos. Entwined will be released in early 2015, with a North American tour to follow.