Joel Shapira emerges from the pandemic with solo album.

Joel Shapira
Highland Park jazz guitarist Joel Shapira will release his new CD, "Triple Bridge," with live concerts on July 15 and 18. Photo by Maeve Gimpl

Guitarist Joel Shapira found a new groove when the COVID-19 pandemic turned live performance into a lost art. He rechanneled his energies into composing and recording a new CD, “Triple Bridge.”

“I chose ‘Triple Bridge’ as the title tune for a couple of reasons,” said Shapira, a resident of Highland Park. “One is that the song exemplifies the melding of my three main musical influences—number one being jazz, with classical and a strong bluegrass feel. ‘Triple Bridge’ showcases a very different sound and side of my playing and composing. The other reason is that I’m a runner. I routinely do a jogging route where I cross three bridges. I did hours of planning for this recording while doing the triple-bridge run.”

Among the first pieces Shapira composed on those runs is the reflective “Where We Are Just Now.” The jazz waltz was written at the beginning of the lockdown when Shapira was wondering what he should do.

“I had this great career, playing as much as I wanted and playing with great people,” he said. “And when that’s removed from you so abruptly, and you don’t see how it’s possible for it to return, you kind of question your direction. I went from 25 to 30 gigs a month to nothing basically in a week. Everything shut down. Everything stopped. That was really hard to process.”

Shapira filled that time composing and recording. Those two activities “were as cathartic as anything I could have done to keep going—musically and personally,” he said. “I wrote and wrote, probably two dozen tunes in a little more than a year”

“It was kind of a double whammy,” he added. “I lost my career, in a certain sense, and I had nothing but time to contemplate.”

Shapira filled that time composing and recording. Those two activities “were as cathartic as anything I could have done to keep going—musically and personally,” he said. “I wrote and wrote, probably two dozen tunes in a little more than a year. Which is more than my output during the previous 25 years. There was one week when I wrote and completed four tunes.”

 

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Other songs on the new CD include “Brilhante,” a word meaning bright, sunny and dazzling in Portuguese. “I wrote it on a hot summer day last year,” Shapira said. “‘Observance’ is a sacred and spiritual ritual, meant to be melodic, meditative and musically intense all at once. ‘Spring Spontaneous’ is a completely improvised piece. No chart, no planning. ‘Before Mourning’ is an acoustic piece I wrote to convey the sadness I was feeling about our COVID times, but with an underpinning of optimism that things will improve.”

As he was composing the songs, Shapira said he always had recording them in mind. “I was thinking of doing a jazz trio recording—guitar, bass and drums, probably. But with COVID, of course, that wasn’t possible because you couldn’t get three people in the same room to play, rehearse and record together. So I started adapting all the new tunes to solo guitar.”

A duet with banjo

The one exception is “Relentless,” a melodic and rhythmic tune featuring Shapira on guitar and Pete Hennig on banjo. Before the shutdown, Shapira and Hennig were playing together weekly as the Twin Town Strings duo at the Bean Factory in Highland Park.

“We had a gig every week, and COVID wiped everything off the calendar within a day,” said Hennig. “When we were able to start playing together again, Joel shared his new compositions with me. We ended up playing through ‘Relentless’ and it seemed to have a unique feel with the banjo.”

Going solo was not an easy decision for Shapira. “I’m a jazz musician,” he said. “That’s what I do. Everything else that I play, like bluegrass or classical, it’s all centered around the fact that I’m a jazz musician. The thing about playing jazz is, most of the time you do it with other people. I didn’t do a jazz gig with other people for close to a year. That’s the longest I’ve gone in maybe 30 years without playing a trio gig.”

Back performing live

Shapira’s first live performance since the shutdown came in February. He played with a group at Jazz Central, the nonprofit Minneapolis venue owned and operated by musicians. It was a monumental moment.

“They put on a series where they had Plexiglas barriers and masks and all the safety precautions,” he said. “It was during a real cold snap. I drove over on a 22-below-zero night and unloaded all the gear. It’s funny: After doing that for so long in Minnesota, that particular element of it doesn’t get any easier. But the fact that we got to do it at all was great. It was huge.”

Shapira will celebrate the release of “Triple Bridge” with live concerts from 6:30-8:30 p.m. Thursday, July 15, at Umbra in the Canopy Hotel, 708 Third St. S. in Minneapolis, and at 2 p.m. Sunday, July 18, at Waldmann Brewery, 445 N. Smith Ave. in Saint Paul. Hennig will join him on banjo at Waldmann. Copies of the CD are also available at joelshapira.com.

In addition to more live performances and resuming live lessons with his music students, Shapira is looking forward to recording another CD of compositions he wrote during the COVID shutdown. “I have at least 15 more tunes,” he said. “I’m planning to make a trio CD with those.”

— Anne Murphy

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