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Sax Massive

Sammy Stein By

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Saxophonist and composer Andy Sheppard was asked, a couple of years ago, to come up with an idea for the 200th anniversary of Isambard Kingdom Brunel. In particular, Bristol City Council wanted an event to start fundraising for lights for the Clifton Suspension Bridge.

Being a saxophonist, Sheppard suggested 200 saxophones somehow get together in one place and perform. He said it as a joke at first and initially, members of the council grinned and then laughed—as did Andy—but after a few minutes, the laughter stopped and they realized they had come up with a gem of an idea. Why not? Why not invite sax players of all backgrounds and experience to get together and come to one place and make music? Why not ask kids who have never played, grandparents who had given up, parents who wished they had played and never did, to get hold of a sax, bring it along to a place at a given time and play along with the best player in the area? Suddenly, it was not, "Why do it?" but, "Why not?"

Sheppard is very much a musician who sees music-making as a responsibility. He believes we have a responsibility to look after musicians and music and make sure everyone can take part. Improvisation is the key for Sheppard in making good music, and it acts as a catalyst, creating a common ground and communication link between people. When speaking to Sheppard, you realize he takes jazz improvisation as a communication tool very seriously.

Sheppard says, "The process from first rehearsal to the final gig is a very different experience from performing with a band. It is a very valid and worthwhile thing to do for the community. Music transcends difference of any sort and unites people."

Since Sheppard started playing, he has come to believe that the essence of jazz is improvisation. "People get hung up trying to define what is 'jazz' but improvisation is the most important ingredient in music and is more essential than swings and changes. It is about the communication between listeners and players," says Sheppard with a passion discernible even on the 'phone. "Saxophone Massive takes improvisation to a new level and it is a wonderful thing for people to come together through music."

Since it was launched in Bristol, Saxophone Massive has got, well... massive! In May, the Millennium Plain in front of the Forum in Norwich was packed with 200 saxophone players playing a fanfare to kick start the Norwich and Norfolk Festival. Led by Sheppard and produced by international music producers Serious, the event was highly successful. Sax Massive has become an international phenomenon and been taken to the London Jazz Festival, Leeds Fuse Festival, Jazz sous Pommiers in Coutances, France and Maijazz in Stavanger, Norway as part of its European Capital of Culture program.

Saxophone Massive is now part of an ongoing participation program linked to the London Cultural Olympiad Programme, River of Music for London 2012. The next event will be in the courtyard of Somerset House on July 21/22, 2012. There is still a chance to get involved and join Sheppard and other internationally acclaimed players. The BT River of Music will also feature performances from artists including trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, taba master Zakir Hussain and pop star Jools Holland.

One of the aims of this performance is that Sheppard is trying to secure the services of an amateur saxophonist from every European country. So far he has got most and the age ranges from 13-76. It matters not a hoot that they may not speak the same language or have the same cultural background, the saxophones will unite everyone—all 200 of them, as they play. More details can be obtained from Claire Furlong at Serious.

Sheppard is not only involved in Sax Massive but also performs as a solo artist and with his Trio Libero, which consists of Sheppard on saxophones, Michel Benita on double bass and Sebastian Rochford on drums. They will be performing at Snape Festival on August 19, 2012 (and I shall be doing a review). Sheppard has been involved with Snape for a long time, creating one of his albums there in a four-day studio session so he is looking forward to coming back to Suffolk again. Suffolk, I can vouch, is also looking forward to Sheppard and Trio Libero.

Photo Credit

Saxophone Massive at Norfolk And Norwich Festival 2011: Bruce Lindsay

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