by Ian Mann
July 01, 2015
Sheppard has a real way with a tune and an ability to make even the simplest melodic fragments sound profound and beautiful.
Andy Sheppard Quartet
“Surrounded by Sea”
(ECM Records ECM 2432 - Bar Code 471 4273)
“Surrounded By Sea” is the third album by the British saxophonist and composer Andy Sheppard for the prestigious ECM record label. It follows “Movements In Colour”, recorded with an all star Anglo/Norwegian quintet in 2008 and “Trio Libero” (2011), which introduced the regular working group of Sheppard, French bass player Michel Benita and Brit drummer Sebastian Rochford.
Sheppard’s latest ECM release combines elements and personnel from both of the two previous recordings with the Trio Libero line up being joined by Norwegian guitarist Eivind Aarset who had formed part of the “Movements In Colour” band.
“Movements In Colour” was largely based around structured compositions and was a richly textured record that included some beautiful melodies. Trio Libero began life as an improvising ensemble with some of the group’s improvisations subsequently being developed into tunes. “Surrounded by Sea” combines the two approaches as Sheppard explains - “with this new album I wanted to retain the same musicality but move things in a new direction with the addition of harmony and subtle grooves”.
The addition of Aarset gives Sheppard another instrumental voice to play off and the guitarist also introduces a quasi-orchestral element to the music with his tasteful use of electronics to create ambient sound washes and drones, a device that he deployed to particularly good effect on “Movements In Colour”.
The album title “Surrounded by Sea” is an acknowledgement of Sheppard’s British roots and is particularly appropriate for a musician hailing from the seafaring city of Bristol. But seafarers are also explorers and Sheppard is one of the few UK musicians to have earned an international reputation, one which has led to collaborations with top American musicians, notably Carla Bley and Steve Swallow, as well as with leading Europeans from many different countries.
The twelve pieces on “Surrounded by Sea” are largely composed by members of the group although there is one inspired cover in the shape of the Elvis Costello song “I Want To Vanish”. In addition to this the album is interspersed by three meditations on the traditional Gaelic folk song “Aoidh, Na Dean Cadal Idir” (“Aoidh, Don’t Sleep At All”) which Sheppard learnt from the folk singer Julie Fowlis. Folk elements have often informed Sheppard’s work and it was intended that he and Fowlis should record an album together, a project that sadly never came to full fruition but did help to sow the seed for this current project - more on that later.
The album commences with “Tipping Point”, jointly composed by Sheppard and Benita. It’s the latter’s bass that introduces and shapes the piece, combining with Aarset’s almost subliminal guitar washes and Rochford’s nimble cymbal work to provide the framework for Sheppard’s floaty folk inspired tenor sax lyricism. With this being an ECM recording it’s perhaps inevitable that the leader occasionally ends up sounding more than a little like Jan Garbarek.
Next up is a remarkable transformation of Elvis Costello’s song “I Want To Vanish”, a tune that originally appeared on the writer’s 1996 album “All This Useless Beauty”. Sheppard was introduced to the song by Benita but this instrumental quartet version also honours the fact that Sheppard once worked with Costello as part of classical saxophonist John Harle’s “Terror and Magnificence” project. Sheppard, this time on soprano, achieves an even greater degree of lyricism , his delicate saxophone tracery sympathetically supported by Aarset’s gently keening guitar, Benita’s sensitive bass and Rochford’s soft and immaculate brush work.
The inclusion of “Aoidh, Na Dean Cadal Idir” stems from the proposed project with Julie Fowlis alluded to above. As an illustration of how he wanted to “dress” her music Sheppard took Fowlis’ acapella version of the tune and got the quartet to record their parts around it. It was this exercise that sowed the seed for the “Surrounded by Sea” album itself.
Later when the instrumentalists came to record the tune for this album producer Manfred Eicher encouraged them to continue playing, improvising around the tune until an extended version was eventually created. It was then Eicher’s idea that the tune should be divided up and woven throughout the album. These three sections are all credited as being Traditional arr. Sheppard, Aarset, Benita, Rochford. The first part has a luminous beauty thanks to Sheppard’s limpid, delicately probing soprano, Aarset’s other worldly guitar atmospherics and the floating pulse provided by the patter of Rochford’s drums and cymbals plus Benita’s anchoring bass. Perhaps rather perversively, it somehow reminds me of the extended introduction to Pink Floyd’s “Shine On You Crazy Diamond”.
Sheppard’s “Origin Of Species” is introduced by the sound of Benita’s unaccompanied bass which is later joined in thoughtful dialogue by Sheppard’s tenor with Aarset’s guitar washes and sparse Frisell style chording creating an almost spectral background presence alongside the gentle rustle of Rochford’s brushed drums.
Rochford’s own “They Aren’t Perfect And Neither Am I” finds him leading subtly from the kit, his subtly fractured rhythms shaping the course of the music. Sheppard solos haltingly on tenor, Benita broadens the sound palette with some inventive arco playing and Aarset conjures an intriguing variety of sounds from his guitar, almost duelling with Sheppard at one point.
The gently brooding “Medication” is an older piece that Sheppard once arranged for the Bergen Big Band. Here his breathy tenor is paced by a rather more regular brushed drum groove and his musings are neatly mirrored by Aarset who enters into a genuine dialogue rather than merely supplying background texture and ambience.
The second instalment of “Aoidh Na Dean Cadal Idir” is tantalisingly brief, clocking in at a little over a minute, a charming vignette with Sheppard’s lyrical soprano at its heart.
Sheppard’s beautiful “The Impossibility Of Silence” features further Garbarek style lyricism from the leader’s tenor and some intriguing counter melodies from Benita’s bass. Aarset provides a shimmering ambient backdrop augmented by the sound of Rochford’s brushes on cymbals.
Also by Sheppard “I See Your Eyes Before Me” is the most forceful track on the album with deep, throaty tenor combining on the intro with the ominous sounds of Aarset’s heavily processed guitar. Yet even here Sheppard’s gift for melody remains intact, his subsequent tenor musings sounding comparatively straight ahead and contrasting neatly with Aarset’s clangorous guitar.
Michel Benita composed the tune “A Letter”, a simply constructed waltz that sees his bass sharing melodic and soloing duties with Sheppard’s soprano above the gentle tick of Rochford’s cymbals and Aarset’s almost subliminal background washes.
The final segment of “Aoidh, Na Dean Cadal Idir” is, perhaps, the best of the three with Sheppard’s soprano skipping lightly over Rochford’s fluent drum grooves and interacting with Aarset’s guitar lines. As a unit the quartet seem more relaxed here.
The album closes with Sheppard’s “Looking For Ornette”, written and recorded long before Mr. Coleman’s recent death but nevertheless a poignant reminder of the loss of a great jazz talent - even at this late date (the piece first appeared on Sheppard’s “Dancing Man and Woman” album back in 2000). The music doesn’t actually sound THAT much like Ornette although the inspiration remains obvious with Sheppard musing on tenor above a gently supportive lattice of guitar, bass and drums. There’s a warmth to the piece that with the benefit of hindsight makes it sound like a fitting tribute.
In the main “Surrounded by Sea” has been greeted with favourable reviews, one exception being Ivan Hewett in the Daily Telegraph who didn’t like Aarset’s contribution at all claiming that the presence of the Norwegian suffocated the album with his “glutinous washes of electronics and heavily pedalled guitar”. Several other commentators have preferred the original Trio Libero to this quartet but few have been as vehemently opposed to it as Ivan.
However I concede that he has a point, there is a clichéd “Nordic Mists” (Hewett’s phrase) feel about the album, a “new age” quality that some listeners may consider to render the album a little bloodless.
I’m more of a confirmed Sheppard fan and can therefore relate more to the genuine beauty of the record. I think it was the late American cornet player Ruby Braff who stated that all improvisation should represent “an adoration of the melody” and that kind of adoration is a quality that Sheppard brings to his playing here. He has a real way with a tune and an ability to make even the simplest melodic fragments sound profound and beautiful and in Benita and Rochford he has found the perfect accompanists in his pursuit of this ideal. I’ve been fortunate enough to see Trio Libero playing live on a couple of occasions and the performances have been magical and memorable and possessed of an unadulterated beauty that even the ECM studio album couldn’t fully recapture. I can appreciate some of Hewett’s reservations about Aarset but I’ll still be keen to witness this quartet when they play a further series of UK gigs later in the year including an appearance at Kings Place on 20th November 2015 as part of the EFG London Jazz Festival.
In the meantime “Surrounded by Sea” is recommended, albeit with slight reservations, for the majority of contemporary jazz listeners.
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