Andy Sheppard: Thoughts and Trio Libero

Sammy Stein By

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Andy Sheppard is pleased to be back; not back, as in making a return to music—he has never left—but back in Suffolk and, more particularly, back in Snape. Snape was where Trio Libero—consisting of French double bassist Michel Benita, drummer Sebastian Rochford and saxophonist Sheppard—was born. The trio released its self-titled debut earlier in 2012 on the German ECM label.

Four days as resident artist a few years back led to lots of time spent in a recording studio in nearby Aldeburgh, where most of the tunes and arrangements were recorded. Sheppard, of course, is an experienced player and has worked with musicians including composer/arranger Gil Evans, and pianists Steve Lodder and Keith Tippett (with whom he made 66 Shades of Lipstick (Editions, 1990) with the proviso that none of the material be written down or prerecorded).

Sheppard is best, for me, when he is playing free. We discussed free form a while back and he commented that improvised jazz is always difficult and that it is far harder to get gigs now than 20 years ago; something echoed by many players I have spoken with.

When I spoke to Sheppard recently he had just played Lisbon and one of the things he noticed was there were more women and young people in the audience, so perhaps things are looking up?

Generally, he says, the scene has changed and he still believes improvisation is the very root of jazz music. Players vary, with some preferring to improvise completely whilst others play every note as written. Since he began playing, Sheppard has realized that improvisation is the most important component in music—more important than "swings and changes." It creates communication between the players and listeners. Sheppard's project, Sax Massive (see a recent Scumbles column), takes this improvisation to new levels and he feels it is a wonderful thing for people to come together through music.

As far as playing is concerned, Sheppard is more involved with Trio Libero than improvisation right now but is aware that London's club, The Vortex, is really good at the moment for offering a mix of genres, including free form jazz, and that the London scene, as a whole, is vibrant. Conversely, he is aware also that what is happening in London is not spreading, or not spreading as quickly as people might think it should.

As to the future, Sheppard is aware of many young musicians out there. Sax Massive has made him realize the importance of contact with the audience and that there are so many people interested in playing. However, there are fewer places to play.

It is important to understand Sheppard's philosophy. He believes musicians, venues and audiences have a responsibility. It should be his and other musicians' mission to create new clubs and venues. He hopes musicians will realize it is a responsible job to make music for the world. As for the audience's role, they should take care of players. ''When playing,'' he advises, ''put anything in, regardless of the tag or style it is labeled as or comes across as; don't worry about these things as a player. Musicians should play what they want but sometimes may have to compromise in order to take the audience with them. It is part of the equation. You have to keep bands going but you have to have places to play and you have to play to people and relate to them. Be responsible, otherwise you could waste a lot of energy and time." Above all, Sheppard suggests that you should be truthful.

This, then, was the background to the Trio Libero concert at Snape Maltings on August 19, 2012. Given what I knew, I was expecting a Sheppard who played free, although, because he was playing with two other first-class musicians and it was a concert of the album, I expected some restraint. Given the views he had expressed, I expected him to use the wonderful acoustics of Snape to let the music fly, rise and fall. Whatever I was expecting, it was not what I got. Trio Libero are unique. There was so much to be positive about in this performance. The music itself was structured and well put together; each musician's individual playing was sublime and there was communication going on between the members of the trio at all times.

Part of great jazz—or any other genre—performances, are those moments when the band meets with the audience on a cerebral or spiritual level. In almost every performance, good or bad, there are moments when the audience finds themselves led by the music, simply closing their eyes and allowing it to happen—or else finding they cannot help laughing out loud because the playing has touched them in a profound manner. With Trio Libero, this happens but you have to be careful because if you close your eyes and drift off even for a moment, it is difficult to reconnect because the music, whilst superficially dulcet-toned, holds beneath its waves runs and riffs of such complexity you need to be fully alert to keep up with what is happening.

The only drawback to a live performance of Trio LIbero is that they are so tuned into each other that the audience ,at times, feels a little disconnected. Sheppard, a man who does not feel the need to be verbose, spoke a few times to the audience and introduced a little humor when introducing "Space Walk Part I" by stretching his arms as if flying, but the audience could have done with a little more communication from the band. This was my only criticism of this Trio Libero experience.

Both Benita and Rochford gave clever and dexterous performances. Rochford threw off rhythms, meaty solos and added color to the music with perfectly timed flicks, taps and knocks. He is, without doubt, a gifted and individual drummer (even if he does resemble a somewhat disheveled younger brother of Sideshow Bob). He used the brushes, sometimes adding an underlying whisper to pieces, sometimes interspersing clicks and nicks here and there, seemingly just because...... When he soloed, he was truly magnificent! Benita provided solos and matchless supportive foundations. His solos were fast, furious and technically brilliant, sometimes the notes seemed to blur so closely together the listener lost the plot for a moment but this was largely due to the deep, rich tones of his instrument and the acoustics of Snape's stage.

The album is populated with tunes of softness and gentleness. The mood is distinctly laidback and calming. Some memorable tracks, like "Spaceman Part 1" linger in the mind. There was, throughout the performance, a sense that the players and the music itself were seeking something, almost reaching it but never quite getting there—a deliciously enticing effect, which keeps the audience engaged. "Slip Duty," "Ishidatami" and "Lots of Stairs" created a mood all their own.

Trio Libero is a change for Sheppard. Compared to memorable tracks like "Cheetah," from his album with Steve Lodder, Moving Image (Verve, 1996), and the counter tones of "Sharp Practice" and "Too Close to the Flame," from Inclassifiable (Label Bleu, 1995), Sheppard sounded subdued but it suited him and quiet does not mean still. His fingers move as fast as ever. I am still not sure, after listening to Sheppard play free and now with Trio LIbero, where he feels happiest as a player. For me, I am biased, being an outed addict of freeform that breaks speakers but I can now also see the importance of changes, musicians trying diferent styles and not being put in a box. Tro Libero was a surprise and, for me, opening the box was a delight.

Live, Sheppard can really soar, as proved in Dimanche en Fanfare and other Sax Massive performances, and here with Trio Libero, he did feel a little restrained. I wished, at times, his sax would soar but this was a performance of Trio Libero, and had Sheppard interpersed the music with anything else, it would have changed the feel and meaning of the concert. "I'm always Chasing Rainbows" was the one downside because, for an encore it became slightly annoying with its slow pace and endless pauses, and Elvis Costello's "I Want To Vanish" was almost unrecogniseable as the raunchy emotive ballad it was written.

Speaking to other members of the audience afterwards, I found a range of reactions. One lady described the concert as, "technically good but I felt very little—maybe it's me!" Another described it as "interesting," and another was fascinated by Rochford's twirling of his brushes, but could not elaborate on the musicality because he had switched off a few times and found it difficult to reconnect. That is something musicans have to be aware of. If they perform a concert which is material people may not have heard before, there will be a mixed reactions. It is a brave thing to try something different, it can sometimes be a braver thing for the listener to give unexpected change a chance.

After the gig I met up with Sheppard in the green room at Snape Maltings. In person he is friendly, with a ready grin and welcoming. He opened the door to the room and ushered me after directing me from the stage.

We discussed music, how he felt after the concert and chatted generally. Sheppard told me how once he met Ian Dury and Dame Judy Dench at a bar—together. I met a couple of people, including saxophonistAndy Brush, with whom I discussed Gilad Atzmon and The Blockheads. Sheppard is immensely likeable and his passion for music, sax and expressive music is never in doubt. I am aware of my own preference for free jazz which breaks speakers, so I had told myself to expect something different even before I went to the concert. In view of our discussion before, and knowing Sheppard's strength of support for freer playing, I was expecting communication, a reaction and a sense of something good happening. On all fronts, I was not disappointed.

There were moments of brilliance and all the musicians showed their virtuosity. Sheppard's fingers can move at the speed of light and he colors and shades phrases with ease, creating patterns and whirls in what is , after all, a relatively subdued and gentle mood. One reviewer of the album wrote that Trio Libero feels as if they are aiming at something which perhaps would be realized in a live performance. He was wrong. Trio Libero are what they are and they are different.

There is the overwhelming sense that somehow three wonderful musicians of great talent have happily found themselves together, recording and performing. Even if it is a temporary state of affairs and even if perhaps Trio Libero is something to enjoy for the moment and move on from, it is an experience which can only enrich both players and listeners. Perhaps Trio Libero will become established for decades. Who knows?

One of the things about going to a concert which is a band playing through an album is that, if you do not listen to the album before, you are unsure what to expect and you often get surprised. I was, not in a bad way and I am sure there are more surprises ahead.

Sheppard is a musical chameleon and can play freeform, improvised, standards or the gentle, charismatic style of Trio Libero. He is also a very nice guy. I, for one, would like to see this particular chameleon again; next time, just maybe influenced more by his surroundings so he can truly show his colors.

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