Okay, okay, “new” version is a bit of a stretch. Alex Rawls over at Offbeat told me about this version back in February. I was busy!
Anyway I’m getting to it now.
New Orleans saxophone player Frederick “Shep” Sheppard died in January of this year, of liver disease, at age 61. He was living in Phoenix, where he’d been since evacuating post-Katrina. All that info comes from this T-P obit, which further says:
Mr. Sheppard worked with R&B legends who included Otis Redding and Ray Charles, performed with several brass bands in New Orleans, and played gigs with scores of local bandleaders, including Fats Domino, Dave Bartholomew, Irma Thomas, Eddie Bo, Bob French, Bo Dollis, Walter Payton, Gregg Stafford and Cyril Neville. In December, Mr. Sheppard, dressed in his signature hat and suit, was part of the New Orleans band featured on the NBC program “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.”
Also in December of last year, he recorded much of the album that would be titled Tradition: The Habari Gani Sessions, in Boulder, CO. (Rawls wrote about this for the April issue of Offbeat. The article isn’t online, but he sent me a copy of it.) Those sessions included Chris Lacinak on drums, Brian Seeger on guitar, and (our neighbor back in the N.O. days) James Singleton on bass. There were plans for more sessions in New Orleans, but Sheppard’s health was already failing, and he passed away before that could happen. Lacinak made mixes for what became two records based on the sessions. Tradition: The Habari Gani Sessions, and Habari Gani, which adds to the sessions more instrumentation, Rawls writes, from “Roger Lewis, David Torkanowsky, James Andrews, Marc Adams and Kirk Joseph, and [is] a more expansive album, including the raucous, brass-oriented New Orleans groove of ‘Funky Soup.’”
One of the interesting things about the former album is the track called “Habari Gani” — which, upon listening, reveals itself to be “St. James Infirmary,” with a reggae-ish arrangement.
Wikipedia explains this term in passing, in an entry on Kwanzaa: “The greeting for each day of Kwanzaa is ‘Habari Gani,’ Swahili words for ‘What’s the News?’” Lacinak told Rawls that Sheppard retitled “SJI” this way as a joke of some kind, though personally I’m not sure I get it. The Lacinak quote in Rawls’ article: “That was Shep’s sense of humor.”
In any event, the take is a welcome addition to the extended family of “SJI” versions. It’s very sweet, and while I wouldn’t have immediately thought a reggae-ish arrangement would make sense, I guess that’s the beauty of the tune: It does. Relaxed and kind of sultry, it meanders a long for nearly five minutes, with Sheppard’s sax at the center, leading all around the familiar tune, never straying too far, but never sticking too close. This is one of the tracks that include John Magnie on organ (he was present for some of the Colorado recording, so I assume that’s him) and that’s the another highlight — his playing is understated but really soulful. Later he has a short solo that tilts toward the funky. There’s also a brief string solo in the middle — possibly Singleton? I’m not sure, but it’s also a nice addition.
Despite the length and the solos and the almost offhand casualness, it’s all under control. Sort of the sound of a really tight house band in a dark bar that used to be high class, but has seen better days — worn red velvet chairs, a chandelier with several lights out, that sort of thing. The patrons are regulars who remember what the place used to be, sort of, and many of them have seen better days, too. It’s been a long time since they paid much attention to the band, which has grown used to playing for each other. But every so often the patrons gaze up from their drinks and through the haze to see what’s going on up there on the stage, because it’s something. And this is one of those moments.
That’s how it sounds to me anyway.
[Big thanks to Alex Rawls, who blogs here.]