Andy Sheppard Quartet At The Mac

Ian Patterson By

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Andy Sheppard Quartet
The Mac
Belfast, N. Ireland
October 9, 2015

Three years on from his Belfast Festival performance with Trio Libero, saxophonist Andy Sheppard returned to the Northern Irish capital with his new quartet comprised of that trio plus Norwegian guitarist/sound sculptor Eivind Aarset. That the gig went ahead following a security alert in the city centre was a sign that people in this part of the world just want to get on with the business of living and partying. Certainly, the downtown pubs and restaurants were heaving with Friday night revellers basking in the feel-good factor generated by the Northern Irish football team's historic victory over Greece the night before.

That result secured Northern Ireland's qualification for a major football championship for the first time in thirty years, an achievement laden with optimistic symbolism that was in stark contrast to the nihilism of a bomb hoax that conjured memories of the city's disturbing past; it's not that long ago that most bands—deterred by such shenanigans —avoided Northern Ireland like the plague.

The tide, however, has turned, and disruptive stunts like Friday afternoon's anonymous bomb hoax no longer have quite the effect they used to. These days the music doesn't stop.

Sheppard has been a good friend to Belfast over the years, playing here in a variety of formats, but this quartet may well be the best ensemble of his thirty-year career to date. The band's UK debut in March at the Bristol Jazz and Blues Festival offered a tantalizing preview of Surrounded by Sea (ECM, 2015), with Michele Rabbia subbing for the then unavailable Sebastian Rochford. Rabbia's array of metal wobble boards, whistling plastic tubes and spaghetti-like cat o' nine tails had brought a veritable percussive rainbow to the suite-like music, but in the smaller of The Mac's two theatres Rochford's nuanced rhythms on his kit lent greater propulsion to what was largely the same set, notably on the opener "Tipping Point," a hypnotic meeting of rhythmic drive and lyrical balm.

For the band's UK debut in Bristol's Colston Hall, a little of the music's often subtle allure had been lost to the rafters but in the intimacy of The Mac's 150-seat upstairs theatre the quartet's every musical gesture resonated. The first-rate acoustics meant that the quartet didn't have to force a big sound and consequently the more lyrical pieces like "I Want to Vanish"—stemming from a delightful intro from Sheppard on soprano and Michel Benita—and the bassist's gorgeous unaccompanied intro to "She Moved Through the Fare" seduced like softly voiced lullabies.

It was in the transition from ethereal spaces to more dynamic ones, however, that the quartet was at its most compelling, notably on the traditional Scottish tune "Aoidh, Na Dean Cadal Idir." Rochford juggled hands, sticks and brushes in response to the tune's shifting contours while Aarset's ghostly soundwaves swelled beneath Sheppard and Benita's interweaving lines.

A Rochford solo spot provided a highlight of the first set, the drummer's compelling tribal-cum-urban narrative leading into his own composition "They Aren't Perfect And Neither Am I," a brooding, loosely meandering collective foray of darkly lyrical vein with a hypnotic, slow funk kick in the tail. Sheppard's beguiling arrangement of Nick Drake's "River Man" closed the first set.

Aarset's dreamy soundscape announced "The Impossibility of Silence," with the other three voices gliding into place to complete the ethereal musical picture. In contrast, "Medication" followed a more sharply defined melodic course, spurred by Rochford's subtle, interlocking pulses. "I See Your Eyes Before Me" morphed from stormy ensemble free-flight to a delicate improvised plateau where tenor and guitar dovetailed. Sheppard switched to soprano on "A Letter," a persuasive ballad featuring another achingly beautiful intervention from Benita.

Aarset—with pedals and knobs to the fore—then generated an altogether edgier ambiance of tempestuous sonic waves that engulfed the small theatre, providing a dramatic intro to "Looking for Ornette"—Sheppard's gently lilting tribute to the late Ornette Coleman. A standing ovation greeted the musicians who encored with a spellbinding, slow take on The Beatles "And I Love Her," with Sheppard's purring tenor central. This soulful arrangement of the Lennon-McCartney tune marked a new addition to the quartet's repertoire and will hopefully make it on to its next album.

Less than a year into its touring life Sheppard's quartet sounds totally assured yet probing. And there's the feeling, on a great night like this—when music and social gatherings trumped politically motivated disruption—that this rather special quartet has acres of space yet to explore.

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