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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.

"Every now and then an accountant in a record label thinks 'Oh, that jazz record [Miles Davis'] Kind of Blue (Columbia, 1959) is still selling. Sign a jazz musician, you never know!' laughs Sheppard. "They have a flurry with jazz and it kind of falls over normally, because anybody who can sell jazz records gets promoted. That's what happened to me with Blue Note. The guy that I was involved with in London for Blue Note was so good and got so much happening that they immediately promoted him to look after Cliff Richard," Sheppard laughs again. "And that was the end of Blue Note UK."

In ECM, however, Sheppard seems to have found his recording home. "Oh absolutely. Right at the start I would have gone straight to ECM had I got the call. Manfred [Eicher, ECM founder] approached me a long time before Movements in Color to say he wanted me to come onto the label but it just took so much time because he's so busy. He's always around the world on some project recording."

Eicher is well known for shaping the recording sessions for his label—for leaving his own imprint in the music—and Surrounded by Sea was no exception. One example was his input on the tune "Aoidh Na Dean Cadal Idir," a Scottish folk tune that Sheppard had previously approached in an aborted collaboration with the singer Julie Fowlis. "We took the tune into the studio for this album," says Sheppard, picking up the thread. "Seb developed a groove—as I said these things kind of happened in the room—and we came to a natural end."

Enter Eicher. "Manfred was waving his arms at me saying 'keep going, keep going,' Sheppard continues. "Michel [Benita] had actually put his bass down. So I started playing again, Michel picked up his bass and we carried on improvising for twenty minutes. The music kind of came into the room and took on a life of its own."

In the cutting room Eicher had further ideas on how the extended, largely improvised piece would best work. "It was Manfred's idea to cut it into three and to weave it through the album, which I thought it was a fantastic idea," explains Sheppard. "With Manfred you always do the sequencing of tracks—that's kind of his speciality—and it's always the opposite of how you thought you'd put the album together. He's really incredible at that and it just seemed to make so much sense to weave that tune through the album."

Folk music of the world, whether Celtic, Indian or from the Americas has long been a part of Sheppard's sound and one of the hidden gems in Sheppard's discography is Music for a New Crossing (Provocateur Records, 2001), an exquisite collaboration with Northumbrian piper Kathryn Tickell. Oddly perhaps, England has not been a great source of inspiration for the saxophonist. "I've definitely tried to find English folk music that I could use as a starting point for a project and I've never found anything that really sets me off," Sheppard admits.

"The whole Irish and Scottish, the Celtic traditions, have great things to draw upon but there's not so much in English folk music, I don't think. The Norwegians have got this wonderful folk music to draw upon and you hear that in all their music, the Italians as well. It's honest, beautiful music and it's part of the jazz vocabulary, though I'm not the first by any means to start utilizing that kind of approach."

Another track on Surrounded by Sea which has a folkloric feel to it is Elvis Costello's "I Want to Vanish." It was Benita who first introduced Sheppard to the song and it quickly became part of Trio Libero's repertoire. "It's like a folk tune," says Sheppard. "I found that out when I was playing with [pianist] Joanna McGregor." Sheppard's collaboration with world-renowned pianist McGregor on Deep River (Sound Circus, 2008) visited old gospel spirituals and more contemporary singer-songwriter fare from Bob Dylan, Nick Cave Alabama 3 and Tom Waits. "The Tom waits tunes are really interesting because they are like old folk songs," says Sheppard. "That line goes right through his music, right through everyone's music."

Costello's too. "I suggested we play the Elvis [Costello] tune with Eivind [Aarset] because when the chords are in there it's going to go to technicolour and be so much more accessible for people to understand. As soon as you put the chords in it all clicks together. Eivand is so perfect the way he colors that tune."

A tune that resurfaces from Sheppard's back catalogue and gets a dusting down and a fresh arrangement is "Looking for Ornette," inspired by alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman. It first appeared on Dancing Man and Woman (Provocateur Records, 2000) and for Sheppard reworking it with his new quartet was a case of unfinished business.

"I've never quite got to the bottom of that tune and I thought there's more life in it. I slightly changed the arrangement to make it work. It moves harmonically in quite an interesting way and I'm shifting around triads all the time as I'm playing," explains Sheppard. "It's a tip of the hat really to one of the great innovators who came along and changed the course of music. When I wrote that I was kind of looking for Ornette, that spirit."

The title for the new album suggested itself to Sheppard's one foggy morning while driving to Gatwick airport. "It struck me that there are some great atmospheres on the album. Particularly with "Aoidh Na Dean Cadal Idir" you can imagine you're standing in mist in a Scottish landscape. I started thinking about where I come from. I've always been aware that I live on an island and we are surrounded by sea. Then I thought, everyone is surrounded by sea, wherever you are. The title popped into my head and I thought it was very poetic. It kind of suits the music and resonates with me, being born on an island on the edge of Europe."

In jazz terms Bristol is something of a small island, a satellite island—like most other UK cities—in relation to the happening London scene. "London is fine," says Sheppard. "The London Jazz Festival is a roaring success, the audience demographic is wide and the numbers are great. That's fantastic but outside of London it's a struggle. I live in Bristol and I hear a lot of jazz in bars. A lot of it is free, so the musicians get to play, which is great, but they don't get to eat, which is not great."

For Sheppard the challenges facing jazz are numerous. "It's tough today," he admits. "The jazz audience is ageing and there's a kind of disconnect between the young musicians coming out of these academies and the audience. The young musicians don't seem to be drawing their contemporaries to gigs."

The economic malaise of recent years hasn't helped. "It's not just the audience but where to play; the gigs are disappearing and the subsidies too, all because of the economic situation. The first thing that gets hit is the arts," laments Sheppard. "Countries that were traditionally really fantastic for jazz musicians like France and Italy are really struggling because they have no funding. Jazz is way down the list. It's shocking. Culture is what we live for and it's being decimated by wrong thinking."

For Sheppard, the musicians themselves have a large responsibility, perhaps more so now in the current climate than ever. "I think if everybody plays well we can turn it around. If people go and experience what they think is jazz music, whatever that is—creative music—and if they have a good time and get uplifted by it then they'll want to go back.

"So, the musicians have an important job to deliver good, happening music, but honest music on their own terms. You don't have to do something stupid to get an audience. You just have to play from the heart and play well and take care of your sound."

Sheppard is enthusiastic when talking about the young generation of jazz musicians coming up in the UK, though he feels that a commonplace lack of far-sightedness restricts opportunities for development and collaborations.

"I think a lot of the young British musicians aren't connecting with what's going on in other parts of the world so well," Sheppard says. "When I speak to them they're not aware of some of the musicians coming out of Scandinavia or Italy. The young musicans have all heard of Dexter Gordon but nobody's heard of Paulo Fresu. I've discovered this wonderful family of musicians in Europe and I wish the rest of the world was digging their music too."

Sheppard is the first to admit that he has been lucky in his career, setting out at a time in the mid-1980s when jazz was enjoying a resurgence in Britain. Bands like Loose Tubes, Jazz Warriors and Bill Bruford's Earthworks announced an exciting new dawn in British jazz. The major record labels backed jazz artists like Courtney Pine, whose debut album Journey to the Urge Within (Verve, 1986) broke into the Top 40 on the pop charts and sold an unprecedented 250,000 copies at the time.

"There was that massive press interest in the music," Sheppard recalls of that time. "It was just happenstance and it was also a lot to do with Rob Partridge at Island Records, who did a lot of work on me and Courtney Pine. Because of the nature of the music business at that time there were people who had lots of contacts who could get balls rolling. It was the right moment in time and jazz sort of exploded for a while. There was a real interest, which helped the scene but these things come in waves. There's nothing new in that. "

Over the years Sheppard's projects have become more diverse and more ambitious. A commission by Bristol City Council in 2010 to commemorate the 200th anniversary of engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel resulted in Saxophone Massive, a 200-strong saxophone orchestra, which has taken on a life of its own. Sheppard sees such projects as part of the bigger picture.

"As a musician today you have to keep moving forwards and you have to be open to all kinds of possibilities and keep reinventing yourself. That's totally within the brief of being a jazz musician," he states.

"You play the same tune each night on tour but you play it in a different way. You should be striving to reinvent it every time. So it makes sense that you reinvent your music or your band or your concepts constantly as well to keep being fresh and keep being creative."

Sheppard throws himself into such big projects with a passion and is currently stretching himself in a new direction. "Bristol is the European Green Capital this year and I was lucky to get a commission to write a big piece for a 200-piece choir, which will be performed in October," Sheppard explains. "It's called "The Divine Paradox of Human Beings in Paradise," so you get the idea, it's a serious work," he laughs. "It takes from the Bible, John Milton's Paradise Lost and T.S. Elliott. It's a community choir project and it's a great foil to what I do with my ECM band."

As he always has done, Sheppard keeps his hand in on the local Bristol scene, notably with the band Hotel Bristol, a grooving quartet with guitarist Denny Ilett, drummer Dylan Howe and bassist/trumpeter Percy Pursglove. "It's a wonderful band," enthuses Shepard. "Percy Pursglove is a wonderful musician and he's going on to big things for sure. He's the bassist but every now and then he pulls the trumpet out and it's like the secret weapon in the band and he kills people with it. He's astonishing."

It's a band that Sheppard clearly has ambitious for. "I love playing with that band. I see it as an ongoing project. Some of the music is great and the band is great so it deserves to be recorded but I can't really see Manfred [Eicher] going for that one."

For the foreseeable future, however, the Andy Sheppard Quartet remains the focus of his attention. "Oh absolutely. I'd love to be doing this more than anything else. I suppose what happens with the record will dictate how much I can tour with this band. One always lives with the hope that you'll make a record that changes your life or changes the world but it doesn't usually happen. There's a little flurry and then you just sort of buzz along. You do your best."

Sheppard has been doing his best for forty years. His dedication to the music, his passion and curiosity remain undiminished after all this time, despite the sometimes precarious nature of the business.

"I'm constantly reminded of how lucky I am to be doing what I do," says Sheppard. "I still live from gig to gig. It's ridiculous. Often there's a blizzard in the diary, I call it. The bills are mounting up and I'm thinking, how am I going to get out of this one? Then the phone goes and a gig comes in and you're saved. Someone somewhere is looking after you. You put your faith in your music.

"I still feel like I've got my best to come. I'm still learning. It's a never-ending process and I'm still constantly humbled by other musicians and composers. I keep hearing tunes that make me think, god, what a fantastic tune! How did someone write that? So, there's always room to improve. I'm really grateful that it's all panned out and I've been able to make these connections and make music my job as well as my passion."

Photo Credit: Sara Da Costa / ECM Records

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