“You probably heard about the vocal thing?” asks saxophonist Kristen Strom mid-conversation. She’s referring to what drummer Jason Lewis called John Shifflett’s “yelps,” involuntary shouts he’d make mid-song, whether performing or teaching.
Strom, who played with the late bassist for more than 30 years, says she was baffled by the yelps at first. In time, she grew to appreciate them – and even felt a bit anxious when they didn’t appear.
“Later I was like ‘You don’t like my solo? You’re awfully quiet,’” say Strom, finishing her thought with a laugh.
The yells were a surprisingly vocal quirk from an expert musician who otherwise chose to let his notes do the talking. Based on the large ripple of support that came in the aftermath of his recent passing, Shifflett was one of the foundations of the Bay Area jazz scene. Lewis and Strom, both longtime bandmates of Shifflett, describe a musician more willing to find the perfect way to support a piece than to take a solo.
Shifflett’s legacy will be celebrated on the Adobe Silicon Valley Stage at this year at Summer Fest when Strom leads an ensemble through a special CD Release performance of Moving Day, a new project that shines a light on Shifflett’s work as a composer. For the album, Strom worked with a number of Bay Area jazz musicians with close ties to Shifflett, among them Lewis, pianist Dahveed Behroozi and Strom’s husband, guitarist Scott Sorkin.
“No matter what style of music it was, he played it with integrity and conviction,” shares Jason Lewis by phone. “I played pseudo Dixieland gigs with him, house concerts, Playboy Jazz Festival in front of 30,000 people or whatever, and he brought the same intensity and concentration to a big gig as he did to a private party where no one was listening. That kind of focus and conviction is something to strive for.”
It’s hard to think of another person more acquainted with Shifflett on the bandstand than Lewis. The two were often hired for gigs as a tandem because they carried such a deep personal musical interplay. They’d even carpool to shows together. Their resume includes credits in vocalist Ann Dyer’s group the No Good Time Fairies, trio work with pianist Paul Nagel as the NLS Trio (whose work featured compositions by Shifflett), touring and recording with vocalist Boz Scaggs, and formative ensemble roles in earlier works by pianist Taylor Eigsti.
Strom’s Quartet – comprised of Strom, Lewis, Shifflett, and Sorkin – first recorded under her name in 2005, but she says they started playing with one another in the Art Notes Quintet several years before that, back when Shifflett had recently relocated to San Jose from Minnesota with his wife Bethany.
“Everyone who had John in their band [would say] ‘Finally, this is my dream band,’ because he really was the ‘glue’ kind of bass player that wanted the whole music to work,” shares Strom. “What the music needed is what he wanted to do.”
Taylor Eigsti, who played with Shifflett for nearly 20 years and featured the late bassist on his first two albums as a bandleader, Taylor’s Dream (2001) and Resonance (2003), notes that his formative years with Shifflett made him feel confident jumping into the unknown chasm of improvised music.
“He was a very powerful combination of honesty, humility, and creativity,” shares Eigsti by phone. “I’m finding out he influenced me more than I thought… He’s the reason why I feel comfortable playing improvised music. I think his pushing me to really be in the present moment when I’m playing music was something I’ll take with me my whole life. That certainly changed who I am as a musician.”
Shifflett was hesitant at best when sharing his own compositions. Lewis says he felt a gesture like that would be hinting at a musical ego, something Shifflett often spoke out against when teaching. But after his passing, Strom saw a great opportunity to celebrate an unsung side of her friend’s musical legacy.
With Sorkin and Shifflett’s wife Bethany, she brainstormed a project that would feature his compositions. Soon, she was on Shifflett’s computer and at his home, sorting through files and stacks of sheet music to uncover his musical ideas. Yet when Strom had pared own what material she wanted to tackle, she and Lewis struggled with a fundamental question: who would play bass on Shifflett’s compositions?
“I wanted someone who would appreciate that it would be an honor to be asked to record John’s music, someone who would really feel that, but not be paralyzed by it,” admits Strom. They decided on Ken Okada, a long-time friend whose musical sensibility paired well with the ensemble.
Strom blocked out March 22 and 23 to record the project inside Fantasy Studios in Berkeley, where Shifflett had recorded several times before. Day one featured a small ensemble, and day two carried an intimate community feel, with Shifflett’s fellow SJSU professors participating and some music students observing.
She didn’t know the coincidental significance of their first day of recording until that evening, when she received an email from Bethany thanking the ensemble. She said it was a great way to spend time on her late husband’s birthday.
Both Strom and Lewis admit that it’s hard to gauge the impact Shifflett had on the Bay Area jazz scene. As a faculty member in San Jose State’s Jazz Studies department for the past 15 years, a regular contributor to various summer jazz camps over the years, and a supporting musician on countless dates on stage, on tour, and on record, he was impossible to miss, especially in the South Bay jazz scene. Strom widens the scope, adding, “That guy, in the Bay Area jazz world, loomed very large.”
When asked how one might hear his impact, Strom mentions a story a friend shared with her recently. He was performing at Jazz Camp West with a young bassist and said the interaction felt like he was playing with someone he already knew. As it turns out, the tones that gave him déjà vu came courtesy of Shifflett’s former bass, and they were coming from his former student, Kanoa Mendenhall.
Kristen Strom: Moving Day–The Music of John Shifflett will be performed at the Adobe Silicon Valley Stage on Sunday, August 12 at 3pm, open to those with All Stages or higher wristbands. Buy tickets now