Andy Sheppard Quartet

Turner Sims Concert Hall, University of Southampton, Southampton,UK

I had the good fortune to hear saxophonist Andy Sheppard with double bassist Michel Benita, drummer Sebastian Rochford and guitarist Eivind Aarset twice within six days. The first time was in the early hours of Sunday morning at an ECM club night as part of the Jazzahead! festival cum trade fair in Bremen, Germany, and the second was this first date of a short UK tour.

In Bremen the band had to share the evening with three other ECM groups so had to keep things shorter, choosing to follow fairly closely the format of the tracks, if not always the running order, of their new album Surrounded By Sea. It was highly focussed and yet remarkably relaxed considering this was the quartet’s first public outing. The acoustics in the former radio studio, the Sendesaal, were exquisite.

The Andy Sheppard Quartet during the recording of Surrounded By Sea

The Andy Sheppard Quartet during the recording of Surrounded By Sea

Turner Sims, not necessarily much bigger but with a steeper rake for the audience, provided a different, though still fine, acoustic, and the band had the luxury of time: two generous sets and two encores with an astute audience who had chosen to come to see this band and this band alone.

Both concerts began the same, as on the album, with Sheppard and Benita’s Tipping Point, the perfect settling starter, and Elvis Costello’s I Want To Vanish, the Turner Sims version featuring a more generous soprano saxophone introduction than there was time for in the Sendesaal.

From there the programmes diverted further with the band including the occasional piece – most of them unannounced – not on the album, as well as extending and exploring more fully, those that are. The first set contained a much more adventurous four-way investigation of Rochford’s They Aren’t Perfect And Neither Am I, while the second half began with an exquisite Sheppard-composed double bill of The Impossibility Of Silence and Medication.

The Celtic folk tune Aoidh Na Dean Cadal Idir appeared and reappeared through the sets, just as it does on the album, and we also heard Origin Of Species and Looking For Ornette.

The most striking change in the two concerts – and I suspect it is one which will develop through the tour – was the increased strength of  the contribution of the “new boy” in what was previously Trio Libero, Eivind Aarset. He was louder at Turner Sims, more expansive and clearly enjoying himself. Judging by Benita’s and Rockford’s expressions they were enjoying him too.

Andy Sheppard has one of the most sublime saxophone sounds in the world, and both venues did it justice in different ways. He favoured tenor more in Southampton, and the low notes especially were like rounded depth charges; his soprano work is achingly pure, heard to heartbreaking effect on the Costello tune, and always mesmerising.

Each member of this quartet is a musical master but what they do so effectively together, and this is Sheppard’s other great strength aside from his saxophone expertise, is to create a really strong and effective atmosphere. It is both ethereal and grounded; it surrounds us, like the sea.

  • For a review of Surrounded By Sea and the rest of the UK dates go here.
  • To read a Q&A with Andy Sheppard go here.

Categories: Live review

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