Two Legs Bad marks saxophonist Peter Epstein’s first album as a leader in nearly a decade, and introduces a musical approach that builds on past work but forges new directions compositionally, sonically, and conceptually. The album, to be released by Shifting Paradigm Records on July 28, 2023, features eight new compositions by Epstein and a new band that includes Julien Knowles on trumpet, Kneebody’s Adam Benjamin on piano and rhodes, Dave Strawn on guitar, Zack Teran on bass, and Miguel Jimenez-Cruz on drums.
Epstein has released eight albums as leader and co-leader beginning during the decade he spent in New York City (1992-2002) where he was an active member of the creative music scene, working with Michael Cain, Ralph Alessi, Brad Shepik, Bobby Previte, and many others. He also led a critically acclaimed quartet with Jim Black, Jamie Saft, and Chris Dahlgren that released two now-classic albums, Staring at the Sun and The Invisible. His most recent release as a leader, Polarities, featured Ralph Alessi, Sam Minaie, and Mark Ferber and landed on the Boston Globe’s “Top Ten Jazz Albums of 2014” and Downbeat’s “Best Albums of 2014” lists. Response from critics was overwhelmingly positive with Downbeat’s Jon Garelick enthusing, “Every moment of this CD is thoroughly engaging. That’s not an easy thing to do when you’re singing your songs in the land of the free.” And speaking to an often-mentioned quality in Epstein’s work, KUCI radio’s Hobert Taylor proclaimed Polarities to be “a reverent and sensitive expansion of consciousness… this music is an appeal to the soul and the mind.”
All of the music on Two Legs Bad was composed during the long and introspective period of the Covid-19 lockdown. While still retaining fundamental aspects of his past work, Epstein sought to expand his compositional approach which had often been compared to Ornette Coleman and Steve Lacy. As Epstein puts it, “I liked to write tunes that provided just enough material to serve as open-ended vehicles for improvisation by the band. My goal was always to ‘trigger’ the other musicians into playing an approximation of what I heard in my head. With this new body of work, that concept remains as part of the equation, but I also wanted to write with more exacting detail, making the tunes themselves more reflective of what I heard in my head to begin with. The result is something fuller and more three-dimensional, but still enabling great freedom and spontaneity.” Set into motion with his band, these pieces traverse emotional territory ranging from frustrated trepidation to effusive optimism, and countless points in between.
The album starts with “Conjunction,” written during the much hyped “great conjunction” of 2020 when Jupiter and Saturn appeared closer in the sky than at any point in the last four centuries, an event thought by many to portend great change in the world. The tune begins with disparate elements that slowly move closer and closer until they finally come together in grooving alignment. “B320” is an homage to the “jazz room” at California Institute of the Arts where Epstein spent four formative years as an undergraduate student from 1988-1992. His countless experiences with mentors and peers in that room continue to reverberate to this day.
In another shout-out to CalArts, where Epstein studied South Indian Konnakol, “Never Odd or Even” utilizes a palindromic form (metrically, harmonically, and melodically) that incorporates metric expansions and reductions and other elements inspired by the music of South India. “Prescience” embodies the often-unsettling feeling of sensing, however vaguely, events or realities forming on the horizon. In a world of noise and distraction, such feelings often bubble up during moments of quiet and calm, even as they tap into inner reservoirs of noise and distraction of a different sort.
“Tepper” is inspired by Epstein’s labor-historian cousin, Carol Smith, who recorded and transcribed a lengthy interview with Epstein’s great-grand-father, Josef, prior to his death in the 1970s. While escaping the pogroms of Ukraine as a teenager, Josef swapped the name Epstein for the original family surname, Tepper. Growing up on the West Coast with his mother’s extended family, Epstein knew little of this history prior to moving to New York and meeting Smith. She introduced him to a familial past he never knew and served as an unending source of love and support. Sadly, Smith passed away suddenly just after the album was recorded, and it is to her memory that the tune “Tepper,” and the entire album, are dedicated.
In George Orwell’s Animal Farm, the line “Four legs good, two legs bad” appears repeatedly in a song sung by the animals (at least in the song’s original form). In a nod to Orwell, and Epstein’s penchant for musical agitprop, “Two Legs Bad” is a musical commentary on humanity’s dualistic nature: possessing the ability to do so much that is good and positive, yet too often yielding to a seemingly inexhaustible capacity to work against its own interests.
“Bass Case” is dedicated to the late, great Charlie Haden, with whom Epstein had the honor of working for four years while at CalArts. As Epstein states, “as soon as Charlie started to unzip his bass case, the air in the room changed and Charlie’s super-human sense of focus and concentration permeated the space.” Towards the end of the Covid-19 lockdown, Epstein and his family ventured out for their first major excursion after many long and grinding months of isolation. Epstein, his partner Julianne, and their two daughters rented a condo on the beach north of Monterey, California. Epstein says the experience was a “profound mixture of relief, joy, hope, love, and natural beauty that was deeply meaningful and healing.” While sitting around a campfire on the beach one evening, he wrote “Pajaro Dunes” in an attempt to capture the moment.
Two Legs Bad brings the past, present, and future together in an inspired and moving artistic statement by Epstein and his band. After being much closer to the flame during his fin-de-siecle decade in NYC, Epstein pulled a bit of a disappearing act, relocating to Reno, NV where he has taught at the University of Nevada, Reno ever since. His experience teaching and inspiring the next generation of creative musicians (and the ways in which they have in turn inspired him), musical rumination on his past, the major shift in perspective inherent in raising a family, and his never-ending commitment to bringing beauty into the world through music, all lend perspective and force to this timely album.