With El Guapo, West Coast saxophonist, composer, and arranger Scott Jeppesen makes his debut as ensemble leader. Well known as a sideman, he has worked with the Manhattan Transfer, Dave Brubeck, Al Jarreau, and James Moody. He has composed and arranged for the likes of Steve Miller, Natalie Cole, Dave Koz, and Ramsey Lewis. He has worked with some of the best. If this debut album is any indication, he has profited from that work.
El Guapo collects 10 of his original compositions and a couple of imports in one of the more pleasurable debuts in recent months. Though his music is filled with edgy, inventive ideas, it is always highly listenable. It never sacrifices beauty on the altar of experimentation. That is not to say that what he is doing is tame; he seems quite willing to stretch musical boundaries. It is to say, he doesn’t play the kind of music you listen to once, acknowledge its technical brilliance, and never bother to listen to again. He plays the kind of music you want to hear over and over again.
Jeppesen plays tenor and soprano saxophone, as well as bass clarinet. He is joined by John Daversa on trumpet and flugelhorn, guitarist Larry Koonse, pianist John Nelson, Dave Robaire on bass, and Dan Schnelle on drums. They begin with the Latin-flavored title tune and then move into a haunting duet between Koonse and Jeppesen on Richie Beirach’s “Elm.” “Great Odin’s Raven” has some effective interaction between Jeppesen’s tenor and Daversa. They introduce the Fender Rhodes on “I Tend to Agree” for another level of soundscape, before Nelson takes up the piano again for his solo.
“Maybe Later” has Jeppesen playing bass clarinet and Daversa adding a solo on flugelhorn. The somewhat truncated “No Drama,” with its suggestion of the bolero, spotlights Robaire’s bass and Schnelle’s work on the drums. “Prayer for Sandy Hook” is an appropriately introspective meditation on the horrifying slaughter of innocents. “Overlapping Conversations” and “Hidden” complete the set of Jeppesen originals. The album closes, in what would seem like an odd choice, with Cole Porter’s “Don’t Fence Me In.” On the other hand, Jeppesen plays it as a trio with a nod to Sonny Rollins, one of his avowed influences. He plays with a freedom that doesn’t even get to Porter until the end of the song, so perhaps the title is meant as a manifesto of sorts.
El Guapo is the work of a musician who does not want to be fenced in.