Take six veteran Los Angeles musicians with diverse musical backgrounds yet common influences; gather them each Monday for about a year and a half to jam and have some fun, just playing for the sheer joy of it and Shapes is born.
Over time, a unique ensemble sound evolves which reflects the influences of this eclectic bunch. The result is Shapes, a new breed of jazz group that has one foot rooted in the tradition of acoustic, mainstream jazz or bop and one foot in the present, and all the while striving to push the envelope a little further. Even as the music industry leans in recent years towards pigeonholing artists and bands into simple categories, Shapes is that rarest of groups which realizes that truly great music shouldn’t be limited to labels or preconceived definitions of what is or isn’t authentic.
Produced by Grammy Award winning bassist and jazz legend, Jimmy Haslip, Shapes’ debut The Last Farewell features excursions into mainstream bop, Brazilian bossa novas and sambas, tender ballads and even has a little twang of country music on the title track. The core sextet of Roger Burn (piano, synths, vibes, marimba & background vocals), Tollak Ollestad (keyboards & chromatic, blues and bass harmonicas), Michael Higgins (electric & acoustic guitars), Michael Barsimanto (drums), Andy Suzuki (saxes & reeds) and Dean Taba (acoustic bass), is joined by some very special guests including Jimmy Haslip (fretless bass) and Russell Ferrante (piano), founding members of the seminal jazz fusion group, The Yellowjackets, the legendary Flora Purim (vocal) and her equally influential husband, Airto Moreira (drums), and Walfredo Reyes, Jr. (drums & percussion).
Shapes was founded in April, 2000 as a direct result of Burn having bought a grand piano and longing to get back to the music that had first intrigued him when he was a teenager, first discovering music. So, he invited some friends over to jam in his home one day and that led to another jam session and then another and before too long it became clear to the guys that they’d accidentally started a band. While jazz had been Burn’s first love, he did what a lot of musicians often do and branched out into other genres partially for creative reasons and definitely for financial considerations. After spending over ten years in the pop/rock music world, playing with artists as diverse as Vanessa Williams, The Brian Setzer Orchestra and Lionel Richie, he found that he was itching to play real jazz again. The guys who would eventually become Shapes were equally enthusiastic about playing, so it was only natural that a group would develop. A quintet at first, Burn felt that something was still missing. Long time friend, Tollak Ollestad, was available one day, so with chromatic harmonica in hand, he joined the band for a jam session and it immediately became clear that the missing ingredient that would add an extra dimension to the band’s unique sound had been found, and thus Shapes was complete.
Once we realized that we had the makings of a great band, we became more focused in our rehearsals and as we started doing gigs around town, we could hear the group evolving past the notes on the page and actually becoming something really special, says Burn. With each gig, we continued to polish our sound as we prepared to record. What started out as just a fun way to spend some time playing music with good friends became the foundation for a group that we hope will be around for a long time.î
We’ve all done our share of gigs for other artists over the years and will continue to do so ’cause that’s part of how we pay the rent. But, there comes a time when you have to say it your way and this band is how we say jazz, says Burn. This band laughs a lot together and we really love playing together. Hopefully, that feeling comes through to the listener. Working with Jimmy was great and we hope to follow in the Yellowjackets footsteps in some way as a jazz-based group that is constantly evolving and pushing beyond the boundaries of what is or isnít jazz. To paraphrase Duke Ellington, there are two types of music: good and bad. No matter what direction we choose, we’ll always try to incorporate new ideas and styles while maintaining a sound that is recognizable as Shapes. Though the title of their CD would suggest that this is the last hurrah, it’s actually just the start of what Shapes hopes will be a long and rewarding journey, always striving to stretch the limits while still remaining accessible to the listener.