Tag Archives: Andy Sheppard

Lagavulin Islay Jazz Festival. September 2013.

September saw me migrating to Islay, like the geese, though I was only there for three days: the Lagavulin Islay Jazz Festival. I give it its full name because I love this festival, and I doubt it could happen without the sponsorship of Lagavulin, one of the distilleries on the island. Also, at each gig, they hand out drama of Lagavulin, one of my favourite whiskies, so that’s even more reason to thank them! I think Lagavulin deserve a lot of praise for supporting jazz in a pretty remote part of Scotland, so in case you missed it, it’s the Lagavulin Islay Jazz Festival. (I should point that I have no connection with Lagavulin whatsoever. But should they wish to thank me for my support, a bottle would always be welcome…)

It is a very special event. Because it is remote – a two hour ferry trip from the mainland – and the ferry port is itself three hours drive from Glasgow, you have to want to get there. There is little passing trade. The islanders welcome the festival, both for the music and for the tourism, one of the mainstays of the economy. (The other being whisky – which also brings a lot of tourists.)

The gigs are put on in small, unusual venues: distillery visitor centres, the RSPB reserve, village halls, the Gaelic centre. The audience, too, is relatively small, and one sees the same faces at different gigs – and different years. People go back year after year; I think this is the seventh time I have made the trip in twelve years.

The small venues and audience mean that each gig has an intimate feel; and the sponsorship means that one can see internationally renowned artists in circumstances that are hard to imagine anywhere else. It is a privilege to go to these gigs.

Over three days I caught five gigs by four bands, two of which were really the same. The festival kicked off with Trio Libero, an improvising band costing of Andy Sheppard on tenor and soprano sax, Michel Battina on bass and Seb Rochford on drums. I had seen Sheppard and Rochford play in a trio before; this outing was a much more rewarding experience. Sheppard’s is necessarily the main voice, but both other players are central. Indeed, Rochford’s minimalistic playing is key: at times it seemed as if he was barely playing, but he made every note, every space count. They moved from bebop tunes to free(ish) improvisation, a joy throughout.

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The artists on Islay frequently pay in a variety of ensembles, the programmers mixing them around in new settings. But this was the first time I saw something new: two different ensembles which comprised the same three people. Debuting first as the Callum Gourlay Trio and then playing the following day as the Kit Downes Trio, the tag team of Gourlay on bass, Downes on piano and James Maddren on drums were a revelation. The first gig saw them playing mostly Gourlay’s tunes with a couple of standards added in. Gourlay’s writing showed real depth and maturity, with some beautiful tunes; his playing was excellent too – he played Charlie Haden’s “Chairman Mao” as an exquisite solo.

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The mood changed a little under Downes’ leadership, in a gig that featured mostly his tunes. I have seen him play several times in different bands, but I think this was the first time I had the opportunity to see him lead a trio. It was impressive.

Bassist Mario Caribe lead a trio with trumpeter Colin Steele and guitarist Graeme Stephen. Mario is the one musician – possibly the one person – who has been to every year’s Islay jazz festival, in one guide or another. He played three trio gigs this year, and I caught the first. Featuring several of Steele’s tunes, including excerpts of his Islay suite from his Stramash recording, a bunch of Mario’s and some standards, this was a comfortable afternoon gig: it had a lovely relaxed feel about it. Stephen worked some guitar trickery with a bundle of pedals that balanced Caribe and Steele’s unamplified instruments.

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The promoters had long wanted to get the Esbjorn Svennson Trio to Islay, and had discussed it several times with the band; Svennson’s untimely death in 2007 stopped that from happening, but EST’s drummer, Magnus Ostrom made the trip this year. Headlining two nights at different venues, the Magnus Ostrom Band were perhaps a curious choice for Islay. Their large amount of electronic equipment filled the two stages they played, and at times looked dangerously overloaded. A mixture of jazz, folk and prog-rock, they have quite a dark sound. Ostrom plays drums with a powerful intensity; he uses brushes unlike any other drummer. He looks pained as he plays, as if exorcising inner demons.

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Aside from Ostrom’s insistent drumming, the major musical voice is that of guitarist Andreas Houdarkis. Bringing the main prog vibe, Houdarkis uses lots of pedals to create a rich sound, balanced by the jazz-oriented acoustic piano of Daniel Karlsson. It was a moving performance.

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John Etheridge Trio. London, November 2010.

After a fascinating session by musicians Soweto Kinch and Shabaka Hutchins exploring the roots and evolution of jazz (part of the festival’s free education programme, they had two conversations over two days – these were a really interesting couple of afternoons), I ventured out to Kingston for Andy Sheppard’s Movements in Colour and Didier Malherbe’s Hadouk Trio. I wrote about this gig for the LondonJazz blog, so I won’t repeat myself here. This was very “world” tinged jazz. Malherbe’s band were interesting, lively and unexpected; Sheppard’s more – well, chilled. It is no surprised that they record on ECM – they have that very cool, European sound. Despite Sheppard’s excellent – though controlled – sax playing, the star for me was bassist Arild Andersen. I’d go a long way to see him play.

Which I did the next day, venturing across London to see him play with John Etherdige and John Marshall. This was just a brilliant gig. It covered a range of moods, from relaxed to energetic, whilst maintaining a cohesive voice. Both Andersen and Etheridge used electronic looping to construct tracks to play along to, building up the layers of sound. They were, frankly, great. Marshall added so much – playing without amplification (the Bull’s Head, though one of London’s foremost jazz venues, is still really just a pub…), he was simultaneously subtle and powerful. This gig was just wonderful – they played exciting, adventurous music. Exactly as I expected.

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Andy Sheppard and Guests. London, March 2010.

I have been listening to Andy Sheppard’s saxophone for over 20 years – he was one of the foremost musicians of the mid-80s British jazz revival. He plays in lots of different formats; last time I saw him, just before Christmas, he was in a trio with a bass player and iconoclastic drummer Seb Rochford. I really loved that gig, and when I saw Sheppard was playing with Rochford and pianist Rita Marcotulli, I reckoned it was a must-see.

It was a different format though: Sheppard played first with Marcotulli, then with Rochford, then Marcotulli again and finally in trio with both of them. The duet with Marcotulli worked beautifully. The piano was quite sparse, creating a slightly folk-like backdrop to Sheppard’s playing. They shared the credits, playing alternately Marcotulli’s and Sheppard’s compositions. I loved the sound they created – though quiet, it was powerful and emotional.

In contrast, I didn’t think the duets with Rochford worked at all: there didn’t seem to be any connection between them at all. I think it would have been better to hear Sheppard completely solo, because I thought the drums got in the way. (Once again, I disagree dramatically with John Fordham!) This changed completely when they played as a trio, the piano bringing balance to the music. As a trio, I thought the music was excellent – powerful and compelling; great stuff.

Carla, Carla, Carla: The Lost Chords. London Jazz Festival, November 2009.

I think I shall have to come clean right up front. This was my gig of the London Jazz Festival. I hadn’t expected it to be – I thought it would be good, and I like Carla Bley’s, Steve Swallow’s and Andy Sheppard’s playing – but I didn’t think it would be that good. And then better still.

So now I have to justify this: just what was it that made it so good? I think it was because Bley, Swallow and Sheppard – who with drummer Billy Drummod make up the Lost Chords (great name, great band…) – were all playing at the top of their game, and seemed to understand each other perfectly. Bley, Swallow and Sheppard have been playing together as a trio for many years – the lovely album “Songs With Legs” dates from the early 1990s – and this quartet has been playing together for five years or so. They seem to have developed a creative intuition, the whole very much greater than the sum.

In the pre-concert talk, Bley said that she didn’t think much of herself as a pianist. She did herself a disservice: she was excellent throughout this concert. Her playing is very understated: several times during the set, I was reminded of Thelonious Monk’s playing. The Lost Chords opened with a long, almost-suite based on (believe it or not) Three Blind Mice – but that that’s three blind mice as if imagined by Monk. Bley makes every space and pause count.

Later on, the band played an arrangement of Monk’s Mysterioso, where Bley had laid her own tune over the basic melody, producing a wholly new composition.

It was the first time in a long while that I had heard Andy Sheppard – indeed, I think the last time must have been with Bley and Swallow about ten years ago in Edinburgh. His playing was a revelation: his playing has great confidence. He plays with a very clean tone; Bley said earlier that she first worked with Sheppard because she wanted a saxophonist who didn’t try to sound like Coltrane, and whilst he must have been influenced by Coltrane, he has very much his own sound. He played tenor and soprano – he played lots of very long notes on soprano (circular breathing, I’d guess) when other sax players would have seen how many different notes they could squeeze. Sheppard’s minimalist approach was perfectly in keeping with Bley’s piano.

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Swallow is another of Bley’s long-time collaborators. His electric bass playing was very fluid and melodic, becoming a third lead instrument and duetting with Sheppard. Drummond did exactly what he needed to, sometimes being subtly sensitive, others energetic and driving.

There was another feeling I got throughout the concert: I kept hearing echos of Gil Evans. This surprised me, since Evans’ arrangements for big bands are on a very different scale to the Lost Chords quartet. But Bley has done much of her composing for many big bands – her own, Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra, way back to George Russell’s orchestra nearly 50 years ago. Seeing her big band play Hackney Empire in the early 1990s (I think this was an edition of her band called the Very Big Carla Bley Band), I recall she said that the arrangement of Goodbye Pork Pie Hat was borrowed from Evans. Swallow co-produced and played on John Scofield’s beautiful album Quiet, and Scofield’s horn arrangements on that always make me think of Gil Evans, too. Joining things up, Sheppard played in Evans’ European touring bands.

This concert was a joy from start to finish, the first finish being another short suite, Lost Chords, the second being a beautiful, slow and mournful encore Útviklingssang. Throughout the concert the music had depth, emotion and delicacy. It was simply gorgeous.

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