One of the great British saxophonists in something of a golden age of British saxophonists, Andy Sheppard has a new album out on the ECM label and is currently touring his Quartet. He very kindly answered my emailed questions.
Q Your new album is called Surrounded By Sea. Has coming from an island nation and specifically from an English seaport (Bristol) been a strong influence on your music, and if so, in what way?
A I’ve always felt slightly on the edge of things – coming from a small island on the edge of Europe. I feel proud to be part of a great British Jazz Tradition. It’s a dilemma I’ve squared in my head. If I were born in New York I wouldn’t be playing the way I play. Having been born in England – so many wonderful players and music come from here – I guess I’ve been drawn to new music coming out of Europe/Scandinavia as well as world music and feel honoured to be part of the World Jazz Family. Where the saxophone and music has taken me geographically has probably influenced me more than where I was born.
I’ve called the album Surrounded By Sea as it evokes the atmosphere of the music – and I felt that the Scottish Song Aoidh, Na Dean Cadal Idir does draw the listener to something very rooted in these islands.
Q The musicians you are working with here are Michel Benita, Sebastian Rochford and Eivind Aarset. How did you choose them and what is it about their individual (and group) playing that most attracts you?
A They are very easy to make music with – all forward thinking and totally ‘sound” conscious – they are all happy to play “inside” and “outside” and aware of the “group” dynamic.
Q The mix of acoustic and electronic elements in your music is very subtle here, but the saxophone is always acoustic. Have you ever experimented with using electronics yourself?
A Yes, I made an album Nocturnal Tourist which is totally centred around ‘electronica’ – that was back in 2000 – I was sharing a studio with Massive Attack and I guess some their concepts rubbed off onto me. I thought I would change the world with that one – it just seemed to alienate me from the jazz world…
Q You have often worked with traditional folk musicians and this album has a Scottish traditional song running through it. Is this The Great British Songbook, in a way?
A I see drawing upon the folk music traditions of where you come from as a totally natural process for a jazz musician – I would like to discover and use more folk music from the UK in my future work.
Q When was the last time you played a jazz standard? (I’m excluding Elvis Costello’s I Want To Vanish for the sake of this question!)
A Last Wednesday – Weaver Of Dreams – I make a point of being active where I live, and try and get out and play locally when I’m not away touring. Playing standards can be a joy and it’s certainly always challenging to try and come up with new angles on old tunes – although I’ve always been more interested in trying to create new music or at least my own sound world.
I’ve also recorded I’m Always Chasing Rainbows on my last album Trio Libero (ECM).
Q You have said you have never had a proper saxophone or a jazz lesson. Is there anything you miss about not having had a formal musical education? And what have been the benefits of being self-taught?
A I guess in some ways I’ve often felt disadvantaged – it would have been handy to have started on the horn at 9 instead of 19 – but you have to follow your own path. I’ve always worked hard on technique, sound, time and harmonic understanding but ultimately it’s all about singing and connecting – you never stop learning in music (or life). Sometimes in the middle of a gig I feel like a total beginner – sometimes in the middle of a song – sometimes in the middle of a note… The trick is to play your best, be in the moment, be honest and hopefully the music will “come into the room”.
Q What is it like to tour with Carla Bley and Steve Swallow? And what do you think is most special about Carla’s music?
A Touring with Carla and Steve has been deeply rewarding on all levels – I feel part of the jazz tradition and in the presence of giants – the concentration on stage is very deep – you have to try and make every note, every phrase, every emotion count when you’re improvising because every note, phrase, chord, silence in the composition counts – there’s no wastage in the music of Carla Bley.
Q You have been working with a saxophone maker to develop “the perfect horn”. What has that entailed and what are the hallmarks of “the perfect horn”?
A You strive to find the horn, mouthpiece, reed that lets you be free – that gets you closer to the sound in your head. Of course you’ll never be totally satisfied (and that’s a good thing). It’s been amazing to be able to work with a truly great saxophone technician, Dave Farley, developing the dream horn and now Morgan Fry with mouthpieces. I’m very proud of what’s been achieved. I love the results I’m getting from this mouthpiece/saxophone combination.
Many years ago I sat in (playing standards) with the great Don Weller and after the gig we talked about horns. I said it would be great to try “the perfect saxophone” to see how you sounded on it. He looked at me and said: “So, are you perfect?”
He was totally right – but I think that this horn and mouthpiece combination is pretty close to perfect for me.
Q You are about to tour with this current quartet. What can audiences expect to hear? Will you be “playing the album” as it were? I have read that this album was more “written” than its Trio Libero predecessor. How “free” is the playing in live performance?
A We will be playing most of the tunes from the album of course but not just recreating them. I hope we will strive to bring something new to the music each gig. There will also be new tunes – you have to keep looking forwards… and keep improvising… and trying to make something beautiful…
- The Andy Sheppard Quartet’s Surrounded By Sea is reviewed and the band’s UK tour dates detailed here.
- To read more about Andy Sheppard go to his website here.