Saxophonist Andy Sheppard has been a constant presence on the British, and international, jazz circuit since he emerged as part of the late 1980s young UK jazz scene, yet for all his widespread popularity he’s remained hungry for exploring sonic pastures new. Selwyn Harris spoke to the saxophonist about how his self-taught artistic journey has always been about drawing on life’s lessons and not those of musical academia
How about this for a brainteaser: name a musician who’s recorded as leader for Blue Note and ECM? Andy Sheppard is one of the very few who has held the distinction of releasing albums on both labels. But working out what such an achievement really means, it’s important to put it into the context of the 58-year-old saxophonist’s career to date. For those who can remember back to the so-called jazz boom of the late 1980s, Sheppard – who previous to that had spent nearly all of his twenties leading a precarious existence as a jazz saxophonist in both Paris and London – was suddenly catapulted into the limelight with other gifted, hip young sax pretenders, including the likes of Courtney Pine, Steve Williamson and Tommy Smith. Sheppard would initially record for Island/Antilles before offering up a couple of albums with Blue Note at the start of the 1990s. Fast forward two decades to 2010 and Sheppard’s debut Movements in Colour as leader for ECM. Needless to say, it’s a very different Andy Sheppard now to back then. Those in-between years point to a highly eventful CV of richly versatile collaborations and commissioned projects that few British jazzers can match. Too numerous to list here, if one were to pick a highlight it would have to be his long-serving, fertile working relationship with the idiosyncratic pianist-composer Carla Bley in both her innovative big band and smaller ensembles over two decades. But as a leader, his new ECM release Surrounded by Sea for quartet – following the acclaimed Trio Libero in 2012 – feels like a defining moment.
“Carla [Bley] said something to me – we were talking about Lee Konitz – she said, ‘but the thing about jazz musicians is you get better and better and better and better, and then you die’. Very Carla Bley,” he says with a little chuckle down the line from his studio in his hometown of Bristol where he’s currently working on a new commission for a community choir and engaging with the local jazz scene. “I didn’t start playing the saxophone until I was 19 and I was lucky. I had a lot of struggle in the early years. But that’s good for your music and I’m completely self-taught. But I did always feel that I was suddenly making records and wasn’t ready to be making those records. I didn’t feel ready because I started so late. But I’m working at my music everyday and I think it’s natural you mature. And hopefully you get to say more with one note than you used to say with 20 as well as developing a voice, a sound, a concept, a musical world. I’m always playing in bands, different styles of music but this soundworld that I have with this quartet is my dream band because I would like people to know this is my music. This is my world.”
The current quartet marks a further stage of development for his free improvising group Trio Libero featuring French acoustic bassist Michel Benita and the London-based Polar Bear drummer Seb Rochford. On Surrounded by Sea Sheppard adds the influential Norwegian guitarist Eivind Aarset (a sideman on Movements in Colour) who delicately infuses the music with his non-acoustic, effects-laden diaphanous sound. Compared to the previous release, Surrounded by Sea is also more grounded in simple song and groovebased playing. Trio Libero was formed in 2009 when Sheppard invited Benita and Rochford to improvise together at a four-day residency at Snape Maltings, Aldeburgh. Sheppard recorded it, went away and compressed, edited and transcribed the best ideas and the band met up again and improvised on them for the recording. It’s the kind of creative process not too far away from the one practised by the John Cassavetes-inspired independent British filmmaker Mike Leigh.
“I thought it was a wonderful record, but maybe a little tough for some people to get,” Sheppard says of Trio Libero. “It’s chamber music and it’s very delicate, very beautiful but to get that across sometimes people maybe don’t understand that music so well. The next album, I thought I so love playing with Michel and Seb and we have such a great rapport that I didn’t want to change everyone but I wanted to make a quartet record. I wanted to bring a harmony instrument in to change things up. Eivind is like an orchestral guitarist and he works in real time. He created all those sounds on the record in the moment as the music unfolds. And it’s in the nature of the instrument, the guitar that all analogue pedals and what have you, it’s timeless in a way unlike synth patches say which can date. It’s all guitar and fret noise. So then I had the idea and I mooted it to Manfred [Eicher], and he liked the idea, and then I started writing music this time instead of starting from a blank page and asking everyone in.”
In December 2013 Sheppard invited the quartet to a residency at the Opera de Lyon, not meeting again until a two-hour rehearsal the night before the studio recording in August 2014 in Lugano’s Auditorio Radiotelevisione Svizzera. If they didn’t get it down in two or three takes the tunes were abandoned: “Manfred [Eicher] did say to me years ago when I questioned him about how much time I would have to make Movements in Colour, he said, ‘if you can’t do it in two days why bother?’”
“You want something every now and then that comes out of the stereo and shakes you”
Aside from the originals, there’s an affecting version of Elvis Costello’s lesser-known ‘I Want to Vanish’ and a three-part rendition of the Scottish folk song ‘Aoidh, Na Dean Cadal Idir’ that provides the focal point of the album, originally part of an aborted project of Sheppard’s with Scottish Gaelic singer Julie Fowlis.
“It’s basically a lullaby but it’s quite heavy,” he says. “The story behind it is something like waking up a child to tell them we’ve got to go to the hills. They’re coming from the North; they’re going to rape and pillage everyone so let’s get out of here! There’s a real history to that song and it’s so atmospheric, which is why I called the record Surrounded by Sea. I was listening to the record driving to the airport and it was like a misty morning. It made me think about where I come from and I come from an island, and then I thought this is the kind of record where you could be at sea or surrounded by sea. Every now and again a little storm comes along, not too heavy but doesn’t want you to get too comfortable. I don’t want to make music that’s furniture. I don’t want people to buy my music thinking I’m a piece of furniture. You want something every now and then that comes out of the stereo and shakes you.”
The new recording’s unexpected nuances and subtle shifts in tonality and sonic tension arising from the band’s atmospheric reshaping of themes owes something to the contribution of Eivind Aarset, a figure who’s been at the vanguard of progressive electronic-inspired Norwegian improvised music since the new millennium. It’s a music that’s had some impact on Sheppard’s work, especially as a solo performer.
“I’ve definitely been interested in the marriage of acoustic and electronic,” he says. “What I find so great with Eivind is it’s a very organic process. When you’re with him on stage sometimes it’s like an avalanche of sound coming out at the side of the stage. Then I look at him and he doesn’t seem to be doing anything! His fingers are hardly moving because he’s manipulating things with a laptop. But essentially it’s all these old pedals that he’s using and just the way it’s configured. It’s just an exquisite taste and understanding of harmony and he’s very intuitive. He’s not a jazz player. If I suddenly said let’s play ‘All the Things You Are’ he’d probably faint. But he has this other aesthetic that I love so much about the music of Arve Henriksen, the whole Norwegian thing, it’s a wonderful soundworld and then it’s great for the saxophone to be in that – like with the trumpet from Jon Hassell putting that acoustic thing with breath, brass, pig skin and bamboo in among this electronic stuff. It’s an exciting texture. I’ve always been intrigued by it. I get bored with beats. I did the Nocturnal Tourist album around 2000 because I was sharing a studio in Bristol, just 10 yards away was Massive Attack and they were making Mezzanine at the time. So I was in that world. These days I like music to breathe rhythmically as well as harmonically. The wonderful thing about people like Eivind is they can do that. They’re not earthbound with that quantising situation of beats. They can float but they can also groove. Seb [Rochford] too is an astonishing musician in that way and I think I get the best out of Seb. I make him do things I know he loves but you don’t often hear him playing in that way.”
In spite of the generation gap and stylistic differences, Sheppard and Rochford seem to share a few important characteristics. Both demonstrate intuitive, spiritual, non-cerebral aspects to their work that have resonated with audiences that might otherwise find jazz too unapproachable. Unlike the vast majority of young jazz musicians arriving on the scene these days, Sheppard isn’t formally schooled. In fact he tells me has never even had a proper sax lesson, let alone studied jazz.
“You couldn’t study jazz at the Royal Academy when I was 20, they didn’t exist.” he says. “Of course it does mean that there are incredibly gifted young musicians coming out of conservatoires all over the world. I guess when they come out they’re fully equipped harmonically etcetera but there are so few gigs. I think it’s very hard to get into the Royal Academy but it’s even harder to get into the street. You’ve always got to have an ear for the street because that’s where the music is happening really. It’s not happening in academic spheres, it’s happening in bars and pubs and jazz clubs. OK so you can play but how are you going to make it your be all and end all? Because if you really want to do this thing you have to be prepared to die for it. That sounds a bit heavy but that’s it. You can’t have a second bow to your string. ‘I haven’t got any gigs so I’ll do a bit of accountancy’. There’s only one person in a million who can be a musician and have a separate career. I’m not the first person to say that. That’s what the beboppers were saying, Parker probably thought the same thing, that the music is happening on the street. Going to a prestigious university to study isn’t gonna make you play great. Basically it’s not going to give you a story. I played with Charlie Haden and he was so wonderful on stage because he just talks all the time. People probably don’t realise that. He’s like behind you and like ‘I’ll tell you a story, man’. It was always about telling you stories, what you gonna play? How are you going to infuse it with your story, with your life? So I think university is a wonderful thing but once you’ve gone through university you have to go into the university of life and even getting into the university of life is hard, never mind getting through it. I guess you get through it when you hang up the saxophone.”
In terms of audience, Sheppard has had first-hand experience of its faddish nature in the UK through the late 1980’s ‘jazz revival’ period. In contrast France’s enduring love affair with Sheppard, demonstrated for example in his huge concert hall sell-outs as resident at the Coutances Jazz Festival, remains something that has largely eluded him back home.
“This country is particularly difficult it has to be said in terms of audience,” he says. “There’s not so much an audience for creative music here and jazz. It’s not the same in other countries. The music is put on more of a pedestal. Certainly in France. If you look in the jazz magazines and everything there’s always the photographs, everything is like ‘this is an art form we’re talking about here’. It’s not music that’s played in a back room of a pub. It’s art. And that’s the way I’ve always seen it. John Coltrane and Pablo Picasso are the same deal. But we’re all here and the flipside of that is there are incredible musicians and music happening in the UK. I always think about Vincent van Gogh and then it makes me feel OK.”
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This article originally appeared in the April 2015 issue of Jazzwise. Subscribe to Jazzwise