|Andy Sheppard Quartet (clockwise from top left): Andy Sheppard, Eivind Aarset, Michel Benita, Seb Rochford|
Photo credit: D Vass/ECM
Andy Sheppard is a beautifully shapely saxophone player and his usual pure sense of melody shines through on his new album Romaria, which was recorded with his quartet in Lugano, Switzerland.
Its predecessor, Surrounded By Sea, was a contemplative album and although Romaria is more robust and energetic, Sheppard still infuses the smallest inflections with expressive lyrical power, as on the haunting title tune.
Of the eight tracks, Romaria is the only one not composed by 61-year-old Sheppard. It was written by the Grammy-nominated Brazilian composer Renato Teixeira. The song was originally a hit in the 1970s for Elis Regina, considered one of Brazil’s finest singers and whose premature death – in 1982 aged only 36 – robbed the musical world of a real talent. The idea to record Regina’s hit as an instrumental was suggested by Sheppard’s wife Sara. He explained: “My wife has great ears for music and she suggested I tackle Romaria. It started as a nice tune for an encore in concerts and everyone loved it so it became a regular part of the live repertoire. I took it to the recording session and the producer, Manfred Eicher, loved it. He was adamant we named the whole album after it.”
Veteran German arranger Eicher, who founded ECM Records and was earning producer of the year awards four decades ago, has always allowed his musicians to go with their instincts and, at 74, his approach is clearly still working a treat. In the creative space Eicher encourages, Sheppard and his quartet deliver another atmospheric delight. Sheppard says: “Manfred’s suggestions are brilliant. It was an intense couple of days in Switzerland. We used some of the soundchecks at previous gigs to prepare but going in and being spontaneous was an advantage, because it sounded fresh. Our group of musicians know each other well and it was done in a quick and intuitive way. And it’s always interesting hanging out with Manfred and talking about the catalogue of outstanding work he has done. He is really quite inspiring.”
Sheppard says that “sequencing is one of Manfred’s fortes” and the album has a deliberate structure, with the opening track And A Day…,(the longest on the album at over eight minutes) and its companion, the closing tune Forever…, neatly book-ending the whole project. Sheppard believes the album is best listened to as a whole and I would agree. It allows you to savour the melodic lines that run through the album like a golden thread. “The album Romaria is like a mood captured in time and albums should be listened to as a whole, enjoyed in their entirety like a book,” Sheppard adds. “It is a bit of a bone of contention of mine, with streaming and such, that music is now something that is dipped in and out of.”
Surrounded By Sea reflected Sheppard’s long-standing love of folk music, shown in his version of an old Gaelic ballad called Aoidh, Na Dean Cadal Idir, and a bold take on Elvis Costello’s I Want to Vanish – but his new album is also full of innovation.
His composition With Every Flower That Falls was part of a suite he wrote for the Bristol International Jazz Festival to accompany a screening of Fritz Lang’s 1927 science fiction dystopia classic Metropolis. Sheppard explains: “I was able to edit the film, with the help of Sara, and write the music for the festival presentation. The tune played itself. It comes at a point in the film when a character is falling in love so it has a romantic mood, despite the slightly worrying title. That screening version was more elaborate so I did a new arrangement for the album.”
The arrangements are for a quartet that has a distinctly international flavour. Wiltshire-born Sheppard is joined again by French-Algerian Michael Benita, Scot Seb Rochford and Norwegian guitarist Eivind Aarset. “I never think about their nationalities, I always think that music is our main connection,” Sheppard says. The musicians blend so expertly with Sheppard’s saxophone melodies. Benita’s double bass playing is centred to the music, while the drumming of Polar Bear’s Rochford deftly underpins the music with beguiling and complex patterns. Aarset adds haunting electronic textures and lines. Just as with Surrounded By Sea, the rapport between the core trio is electric. “They brought the right sensitivity to the project,” says Sheppard.
Unlike many who double up on saxophones, there is little to choose between Sheppard’s tenor and soprano playing. Ben Webster said of the soprano that “it is a hard instrument to play in tune”. Asked if that rings true, Sheppard replies: “I do see myself as more of a tenor player. I don’t practise as much on the soprano but it adds another colour to the music. And he was right. It is incredibly difficult to play in tune and it’s hard work for the embouchure, like wearing uncomfortable shoes! But Music is always a work in progress,” Sheppard adds cheerfully.
Romaria is a thought-provoking and reflective album and Sheppard’s tenor and soprano sax sound as sweet as ever. (pp)
7.04.2018 : MÜNCHEN/Unterfahrt Jazzclub
3. 05.2018 BRISTOL St George’s (Andy Sheppard & Eivind Aarset only)
LINK: Pre-order the album