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Andy Sheppard: Tales From the Bristol Underground Jazz Revolution

Ian Patterson By

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Sometimes it's hard to get something better out in your solo than the tune itself. It has to have emotion and feeling and to be honest. When you're improvising you don't think; you shouldn't be thinking at all when you're playing —Andy Sheppard
"Jazz has always been an underground thing. It doesn't have the power and might of opera, but it should," says Andy Sheppard, shortly after the UK premier of Surrounded by Sea (ECM, 2015) at the Bristol Jazz & Blues Festival. "Everyone in the music industry has a respect for jazz music, and they should, I think, realize the value of what's come out of this thing called jazz and the echoes that run through all other genres of music now."

A patron of his hometown festival—now in its third year—and a tireless advocate of this music called jazz, Sheppard is more than a little mystified as to why jazz doesn't enjoy the same patronage and profile as other art forms.

"It's always been a frustration to me because I see in this music the highest expression of an art form and then I look at parallel worlds of contemporary art and to me there's always a kind of disconnect. There's the Tate Modern, there are paintings being sold for ridiculous sums of money. And then there's this thing called jazz and jazz musicians who are equally brilliant and yet we're still playing in pubs," he laughs incredulously.

Sheppard has played his fair share of humble venues in a thirty-year career but still believes that jazz deserves better. He continues to raise the battle standard and sound the clarion call to rally the rank and file against public indifference, arts council cuts and disappearing jazz venues. "I think we should all join the revolution," he suggests. "The Bristol Underground Jazz Revolution, I call it."

Sheppard has just released Surrounded by Sea, his third as leader for the storied German label ECM. One of Sheppard's most lyrical recordings ever, it brings together Michel Benita and Sebastian Rochford from Trio Libero and guitarist/electronics musician Eivind Aarset, who collaborated with Sheppard on Movements in Color (ECM, 2009). Sheppard is unreservedly excited at the possibilities of his new quartet based on the recording experience. "It was a joy to make."

Despite the fact that the quartet didn't have a chance to rehearse the music before meeting in the studio the sessions went incredibly smoothly. "It seemed to work in our favour because we developed things in the studio," Sheppard relates "and it was great to capture that in real time. It all seemed to fall together in the moment."

Shepard had been looking to evolve the sound of his music from Trio Libero but Benita and Rochford were always part of the new equation. "I found that the empathy I had going with Michel and Seb was quite special," says the fifty eight year-old saxophonist. "We didn't use any monitors on stage. It was always very quick to set up and we'd just start playing. Sound-checks were just a joy, playing things we'd never played before. We weren't sound-checking the tunes we were going to play that night. It was just so easy to play with these guys that I thought it's just got to go forward."

Sheppard was, however, as indeed he has been all his career, creatively restless. "I could see that some people would struggle with the lack of harmony in Trio Libero because I can hear all the chords in my head," Sheppard laughs. "I thought maybe we should do something with a chordal instrument. "I wanted to make a new statement and Eivind [Aarset] seemed the perfect choice."

As well as their collaboration on Movements in Color, Sheppard had played with the Norwegian guitarist in a Ketil Bjornstad project at the Molde International Jazz Festival 2010—a concert that later saw the light of day as La Notte (ECM, 2013)—and saw in Aarset the missing piece in his jigsaw.

"Eivind is like a kind of orchestral guitarist," says Sheppard. "The whole sound world would change and the sensitivity would change. I knew that everybody in the band would really enjoy him being there. So I sat down and wrote some tunes."

A couple of the tunes had previously been road-tested with Trio Libero and "Medication" had actually been part of a big-band suite Sheppard wrote for the Bergen Big Band. But everything really came together with the invitation to do a week-long residency in Lyon.

"I had a wonderful opportunity to rehearse the band in the Opera House in Lyon, in the Amphitheatre, which is a club underneath the Opera House," explains Sheppard. "They invite artists to do a week-long residency there and it's a chance to rehearse and work up a project, which is what I did in December 2013. We then reconvened the night before the session in July last year and made the record. It kind of fell together naturally. We all brought something to the table."

Surrounded by Sea trades off some of the rubato color of Trio Libero for more groove. Rochford's guile and subtlety may come as a surprise to those who only know his work with Acoustic Ladyland and Polar Bear. He brings some of the late Paul Motian's bag to the mix, a feeling that Sheppard relates too. "Paul Motian, exactly. Seb [Rochford] has even got Billy Higgins in there. He really swings. I'm thrilled that the world is getting to hear that side of him through my records on ECM because it gives him that platform.

"You need a drummer who can play the room and be sensitive to the dynamic range," Sheppard expands. "That's a real skill to understand the dynamics of a room, when you're recording and when you're playing. Seb does that. He's a very, very special drummer and musician and he writes fantastically as well."

Due to other commitments Rochford was unable to make the UK premier of Surrounded by Sea at the Bristol Jazz & Blues Festival and his place on the drum stool was taken by Michele Rabbia, who brought an entirely different aesthetic to the music. "He's more of a percussionist than a drummer," says Sheppard. "With Michele you never know what he's going to do next. I had no idea he was going to pull out the tin foil and spaghetti on the gig in Bristol. "

Sheppard had sent Rabbia a copy of the album once he knew Rochford couldn't make the Bristol gig but the musicians only got together the morning of the performance: "We rehearsed for two hours in the morning," explains Sheppard. "Michele had just absorbed the record. I had got a little studio so we were completely concentrated and within an hour it was enough. Michele's a wonderful musician. We went on playing for fun and then we went for lunch and then we did the gig."

Sheppard had first come across Rabbia through a Rita Marcotulli project on the music of Pink Floyd. "That came about because we'd made a duo record called On the Edge of a Perfect Moment (Incipit Records, 2007) and on that record there's a version of "Us and Them." Somebody heard that and suggested to Rita that she do an extended project. So we made this record [Us and Them: Omaggio Ai Pink Floyd (Casa Del Jazz, 2008)] and Michele [Rabbia] was on that record date in Rome."

Sheppard and Rabbia hit it off immediately and have since played duo gigs together. There's more to Rabbia than just percussion, as Sheppard explains: "He uses laptops and electronics really creatively. He's also a master in playing the saw, which he then he treats through his laptop and turns into an orchestra. I'd really like to have him on the next album."

Ever since his eponymous debut in 1987 Sheppard's career has been marked by serial collaborations. He seems to work with a core of musicians for two or three years before moving on. Sheppard sees this sort of creative renewal as a very natural kind of evolution: "It seems that it's what musicians in my area of music do. You have to keep reinventing yourself."

Sheppard shows little nostalgia for his records. Once they're done they're in the past and it's time to look ahead. "I have got quite a big back catalogue of tunes and sometimes, especially if I'm doing workshops, I'll play an old tune but I wouldn't want to go back and play the tunes from my first album—that was then and this is now. If you're a jazz musician you have to keep changing. Everyone has got a different story to tell and sometimes you just need to close a door here and open a door there in order to try and refocus your music."

One door that Sheppard has kept wide open for the guts of twenty five years is his collaboration with Carla Bley and Steve Swallow—two musicians he admires profoundly.

"Oh, it's a joy," exclaims Sheppard. "Carla and Steve are such unique people. Just being around that buzz of genius. Genius is a heavy word to bandy about but it's people doing things that nobody has done before and Carla's one of those people. Historically she's been one of the innovators. Her melodies are fantastic, as are her harmonies and concepts. Steve Swallow's playing is unbelievable. He's so melodic. He has a touch of genius with melody, and great time."

Bley, Swallow and Sheppard are due to tour once again in the autumn. There's a new album on the way as well, their first together since Trios (ECM, 2013) and their twelfth in total since Fleur Carnivore (Watt/ECM, 1988). "It's amazing we've been working together for so long," reflects Sheppard "but she keeps giving me the call and I'm thrilled. It's ongoing. Carla Bley told me that as a jazz musician you do get better and better and better and then you die," Sheppard says laughing, "so we're still working at getting better. "

Sheppard has never sounded better or more lyrical than on Surrounded by Sea. He is, he says, happy to be known as a melodic improviser. "Melody has always been really important to me and sound is really important," he explains. "That's what touches me. I love playing tunes. Sometimes it's hard to get something better out in your solo than the tune itself. It has to have emotion and feeling and to be honest. When you're improvising you don't think; you shouldn't be thinking at all when you're playing."

It was more of a gut feeling than any thought-out plan that led Sheppard down the path of a music career in the first place, when at the relatively late age of nineteen he decided to take up the saxophone. "When I picked up the saxophone it was a life-changing decision. I wasn't meant to be playing the sax, I was meant to go to art college. I knew it was going to be hard and no-one was there to help me but I felt this is what I wanted to do with my life."

From London to Paris and then to Bristol, his adopted home of many years, Sheppard has carved out a remarkable career for himself that has seen him collaborate with the likes of Gil Evans, George Russell, Joanna McGregor and John Paricelli. He also holds the possibly unique distinction of having recorded for just about every major record label, from Island and Blue Note to Verve and ECM.
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