Andy Sheppard @ The Warwick Arts Centre

Andy Sheppard: Surrounded by Sea – Live at The Warwick Arts Centre, Thursday 19th November 2015.

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Photo: Courtesy of Garry Corbett

It was great to return to the Warwick Arts Centre on Thursday night. This is such a lovely theatre, albeit relatively small, with its extremely welcoming, warm and intimate atmosphere – perfect for this kind of gig. An early start time, 7pm, may have contributed to the theatre not being full, although other great jazz acts performing in Birmingham and Coventry on the same night is more likely the reason. This was the first night of Andy Sheppard’s latest tour – promoting his excellent ECM album “Surrounded By Sea”. The personel on stage are almost identical to the artists on the album, with just one change; Michele Rabbia replacing Seb Rochford on drums and percussion. The rest of the line-up is the same; Andy Sheppard on tenor and soprano saxes, Michel Benita on double bass, and Eivind Aarset on guitar and electronics.

Having enjoyed listening to the album over the last few months, I was intrigued to hear how this would transfer to a live setting, the ambience of the recording being so subtle and intimate. I needn’t have worried, in fact if anything, the music performed live by this quartet managed to surpass that of the recording itself. I’ve seen Andy Sheppard perform on many occasions over the last 20 years and I’d have to say this was one the most enjoyable, certainly in the last decade. The synergy between all four musicians was obvious for all to see, with the excellent sound that the theatre provides adding to what was a memorable night.

The set list, as one would expect, was largely made up of tunes from the album, yet there were a couple of exceptional surprises. The gig began with four tunes linked together; three of these mirroring those on the opening of “Surrounded By Sea”. The scene was set for the evening right from the off, with rich and subtle soundscapes being created, Italian percussionist Michele Rabbia’s deft touch being the pebbles on the shore to Eivind Aarset’s slow crashing waves. A seamless link between “Tipping Point” and “I Want To Vanish” allowed for the sensitive playing to continue, with Sheppard moving from the deep, breathy tones of his tenor sax, onto the lighter, more playful soprano. The music being created is quite beautiful. Sheppard’s haunting melodies and sweet lyricism combine wonderfully with the sweeping colours and textures provided by Aarset’s guitar and electronics. French bass player Michel Benita takes us into the third tune, “Aoidh” in style. Based on a traditional folk tune, Sheppard is in his element here as the melody of the song is at first provided by the sax and bass duo, with the guitar then coming more to the fore and the excellent Rabbia adding invention with his drumming. Sheppard later commented that this was only the second time the drummer had performed with the band- we wouldn’t have known. Rarely have I seen a drummer perform with such integrity and intuition. He added so much to the music being performed, with every gentle touch and nuance picked up perfectly by the two overhead microphones positioned above his kit. As the band collectively and assuredly move into the next piece of music, the pace increases and the intensity rises, with Aarset showing his class on this firecracker of a tune. Sheppard and Aarset are a match made in heaven, with the guitarist’s insanely wondrous sounds allowing the beauty of the saxophonist’s melodies to create the rays of sunshine that leave the listener smiling with pleasure. Finally the band pause for breath and the audience can applaud. “I See Your Eyes Before Me” begins with a rousing avant-garde opening, before the bass led tune develops and Sheppard takes over with some typically creative blowing. The first major surprise of the evening comes with the final tune of the first half’s performance. It only took a few seconds for me to realise what the band were playing; Nick Drake’s “Riverman”. Having been captivated all those years ago by the original tune from the moment I first heard it, it was a delight to hear Andy Sheppard bringing his own inimitable style to this incredible piece of music. Thoughtful and contemplative, though perhaps less brooding and meditative than Brad Mehldau’s wonderful interpretation, this was no less brilliant; Sheppard’s gorgeous tenor tone sweeping away all the problems of the world for just a few very special minutes… a wonderful moment in time to have experienced.

“We are going to take a short break now” announces Sheppard, “I need to lie down”. We all do Andy, after such a spellbinding first half.

Following the interval, this fine quartet, creators of moods, purveyors of the fine art of atmosphere, the second half commences with some lovely guitar work from Aarset on “The Impossibility of Silence”. The sound washes over us and cleanses the aching soul. Bowed bass from Benita and stirring percussion from Rabbia help fill the auditorium with waves of sculptured sound. The second tune of this half is introduced by the saxophonist as “Medication”. With the type of music being performed here, it could be easy for it to fall into something of a familiar wash, but it never does. Sheppard has always had a smiling lyricism to his compositions, and the set on “Surrounded By Sea” here tonight is no different. Yes, there is a stunning depth of beauty to the music, with touches of melancholy and splendid subtlety, but the saxophonist’s playing is always filled with light; a hug and a compassionate, knowing glance are there to lift the spirits and take us to a warm, gentle, happier place. A place in the sun where the sea breezes buffer our skin and the sounds of the ever-changing tide ripple with a thought-provoking pleasure. Poetry in motion. Michel Benita’s tune “A Letter” is followed by a storming “Improv”. Rabbia’s drum solo is inspirational, sounding like a percussionist’s vision of Ornette Coleman. A piercingly dark and brooding overdrive then fills the theatre; Aarset fuelling flames for the fire with some wild, effusive mind-bending guitar work. Post-bop jazz combines with a playful eeriness as, fittingly, the forceful improvisations lead us into “Looking For Ornette”. As ever with our favourite Bristolian, there’s plenty of humour in his saxophony, punctuated by a sense of sincerity as the mood shifts from some imposing circular breathing, to yet another enticing melody as the set draws to a close with “Romaria”. Cue very appreciative, well deserved applause as the band take a bow. Benita, Rabbia and Aarset have barely left the stage as Sheppard beckons them back on for an encore. The foursome have provided us with music par excellence this evening, but some of the best was still yet to come…

A slow, laid back groove began to fill the air, and I thought, I know this tune. Then it struck me, my word this is The Beatles’ “And I Love Her”… like never heard before. Sheppard and co successfully made this tune way, way more than the sum of its parts. A lovely number yes, but in the hands of this quartet, it has morphed into one of the most astonishing pieces of music I’ve ever heard. Incredible stuff capping off an exceptional gig. The “Surrounded By Sea” quartet are on tour for the next couple of weeks. Don’t miss out – check your local listings to find a performance near you – you won’t regret it.

Mike Gates

travelling the spaceways since 1993