Andy Sheppard Quartet: Surrounded by Sea (ECM 2432)

Surrounded by Sea

Andy Sheppard Quartet
Surrounded by Sea

Andy Sheppard tenor and soprano saxophones
Eivind Aarset guitar
Michel Benita double bass
Sebastian Rochford drums
Recorded August 2014, Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI, Lugano
Engineer: Stefano Amerio
Produced by Manfred Eicher
U.S. release date: 2 June 2015

Surrounded by Sea marks the fifth ECM appearance by English saxophonist Andy Sheppard. To the configuration of bassist Michel Benita and drummer Sebastian Rochford (with whom he previously recorded as Trio Libero) he now welcomes the ambient touch of guitarist Eivind Aarset. The latter, perhaps more than any other, evokes the encompassing waters of the album’s title, and draws on the relationship formed on Sheppard’s ECM debut, Movements in Colour.

Emphasis sides with Sheppard’s compositions, which have the first and final word on Surrounded by Sea. “Tipping Point,” co-written with Benita, opens the set on a distant shore. Given its delicate bass ostinato and cavernous sustains (courtesy of Aarset), one could be forgiven in mistaking it for Arild Andersen’s Hyperborean. But tenor and drums paint a clearly different picture, Sheppard working his blemish-less magic into the fade-in. Intensely melodic yet never overwhelming, he balances mild and sharp like a chef aiming to please as many diners as possible without losing his originality. Already we can tell this will be a fruitful leap inward for the saxophonist, as well as a memorable masterstroke of overall production, writing, and performance that never wavers on its way toward the closing “Looking For Ornette,” which shines all the more poignantly in the wake of its namesake’s recent death. Sheppard cites Coleman as a towering influence, but one may also detect a little of Lee Konitz (cf. Angel Song) in the playing.

Between these two signposts, Sheppard’s new quartet charts the melodic valleys between his mountainous originals. Both “Origin Of Species” and “Medication” spotlight Benita’s versatile stylistics, ranging from starkly original contemplations to Eberhard Weber-like infrastructures. Each theme is stretched like taffy into an intensely flavored ocean for Sheppard’s vessels, which find their grooves in the motions of the waves. Two further tunes—“The Impossibility Of Silence” and “I See Your Eyes Before Me”—are by comparison more bodily than environmental, steeping in the viscosity of Aarset’s magic and drawing nourishment from Rochford’s carefully knotted roots.

Bassist and drummer each contribute their own tunes, which between the David Lynchean swagger of Benita’s “A Letter” and the psychedelic charge of Rochford’s “They Aren’t Perfect And Neither Am I” forge a wide spectrum of emotional courage. It’s as if every mood were a skin the band as a whole could put on and take off at will, just as the sky dons and discards shades from dusk to dawn. In that same spirit of variation, the quartet pays homage to the unexpected in an atmospheric rendition of Elvis Costello’s “I Want To Vanish,” in which Sheppard’s soprano, as windswept as the grasslands, settles into the comforts of brushed drums and more selective bassing. As in the traditional Gaelic “Aoidh, Na Dean Cadal Idir” (Aiodh, Don’t Sleep At All), scattered in three parts throughout the album, Sheppard and his companions make every note count. But like Pi, we need only know the first few numbers after the decimal to recognize their infinite potential.

(To hear samples of Surrounded by Sea, click here.)

JAPO complete

I have now reviewed every release in the JAPO catalogue. Shout outs to Craig LeHoullier, Steve Lake, and Bernd Webler for helping make my JAPO listening complete!

Any of you regular readers out there might have noticed that I recently reviewed the two latest XtraWATT albums. These stand as my backward entry into ECM’s other sub-labels. I do, of course, plan to also explore WATT and CARMO in full on this site, although such reviews may be sporadic, mixed in as they will be with the most up-to-date ECMs, along with albums from farther afield.

Below is a list of all JAPO releases, hyperlinked to my reviews for your convenience.

JAPO 60001 Mal Waldron The Call (Feb 1971)
JAPO 60002 Abdullah Ibrahim African Piano (Oct 1969)
JAPO 60003 Barre Phillips For All It Is (Mar 1971)
JAPO 60004 Herbert Joos The Philosophy of the Fluegelhorn (Jul 1973)
JAPO 60005 Dollar Brand Ancient Africa (Jun 1972)
JAPO 60006 Bobby Naughton Understanding (Oct 1971)
JAPO 60007 Edward Vesala Nan Madol (Apr 1974)
JAPO 60008 Jiří Stivín & Rudolf Dašek System Tandem (May 1974)
JAPO 60009 Children At Play s/t (1973)
JAPO 60010 Enrico Rava “Quotation Marks” (Dec 1973, Apr 1974)
JAPO 60011 Magog s/t (Nov 1974)
JAPO 60012 OM Kirikuki (Oct 1975)
JAPO 60013 Manfred Schoof Quintet Scales (Aug 1976)
JAPO 60014 Larry Karush/Glen Moore May 24, 1976 (May 1976)
JAPO 60015 Herbert Joos Daybreak (Oct 1976)
JAPO 60016 OM Rautionaha (Dec 1976)
JAPO 60017 Stephan Micus Implosions (Mar 1977)
JAPO 60018 Ken Hyder’s Talisker Land Of Stone (Apr 1977)
JAPO 60019 Manfred Schoof Quintet Light Lines (Dec 1977)
JAPO 60020 Rena Rama Landscapes (Jun 1977)
JAPO 60021 Globe Unity Orchestra Improvisations (Sep 1977)
JAPO 60022 OM OM with Dom Um Romao (Aug 1977)
JAPO 60023 Lennart Åberg Partial Solar Eclipse (Sep 1977)
JAPO 60024 Contact Trio New Marks (Jan 1978)
JAPO 60025 George Gruntz Percussion Profiles (Sep 1977)
JAPO 60026 Stephan Micus Till The End Of Time (Jun 1978)
JAPO 60027 Globe Unity Compositions (Jan 1979)
JAPO 60028 Barry Guy Endgame (Apr 1979)
JAPO 60029 TOK Paradox (Jun 1979)
JAPO 60030 Manfred Schoof Quintet Horizons (Nov 1979)
JAPO 60031 AMM III It Had Been an Ordinary Enough Day… (Dec 1979)
JAPO 60032 OM Cerberus (Jan 1980)
JAPO 60033 Elton Dean Quintet Boundaries (Feb 1980)
JAPO 60034 Peter Warren Solidarity
JAPO 60035 Tom van der Geld/Children At Play Out Patients (Jul 1980)
JAPO 60036 Contact Trio Musik (Oct 1980)
JAPO 60037 Es herrscht Uhu im Land s/t (Dec 1980)
JAPO 60038 Stephan Micus Wings Over Water (Jan 1981)
JAPO 60039 The Globe Unity Orchestra Intergalactic Blow (Jun 1982)
JAPO 60040 Stephan Micus Listen to the Rain (Jun 1980, Jul 1983)
JAPO 60041 Stephan Micus East Of The Night (Jan 1985)

Barry Guy: Endgame (JAPO 60028)


Barry Guy

Barry Guy bass
Howard Riley piano
John Stevens drums, cornet
Trevor Watts alto and soprano saxophones
Recorded April 1979 at Tonstudio Bauer, Ludwigsburg
Engineer: Martin Wieland
Produced by Steve Lake and Manfred Eicher

Bassist Barry Guy has always lurked in some of ECM’s most unexpected corners, and on this JAPO release from 1979 he joins pianist Howard Riley, drummer John Stevens, and saxophonist Trevor Watts for five freely improvised tracks of understated pandemonium. The titles of said tracks confuse more than they clarify, because the music speaks so well for itself. “The Y?” is a bubbling broth that gradually thickens into stew. Each musician seems to play in his own space, feeling out the dynamics of the scene before populating it with movements. Watts’s altoism is the boldest color of this spectrum, diving through his bandmates’ hoops with the ease of a dolphin. This leaves Guy to navigate Riley’s punctuations with strange tenderness, and Stevens to fill the void with his brilliant sputtering.

The sub-terrain to the former’s mountains, “Remember To Remember” opens low and dark in Guy’s strings. Watts carves a stark alphabet into Riley’s chaotic palimpsest, leaving Stevens to flounder on shore. There is a dynamic of searching here that, if not apparent already, should by now hit the listener like a eureka moment, as the group’s modus operandi becomes clear as day: this is not free improvisation but improvised freedom. With this realization as our compass, we leap over every pin and needle into “Du Doo.” Guy again provides the anchor, which is meant to maintain as much as obliterate stasis. His heart is in the details. Stevens brushes the frame until it turns to dust, while Watts wanders joyfully in these ashen ruins as if they were newly built. The detailed finish shows just how sensitive this quartet can be.

“Maze,” in spite of its title, is the most linear track on the album. Its surface-level overlap only thinly veils a continuity that sustains a full 13 minutes’ worth of depth-soundings. At the core of it all is the relationship between Guy and Watts, who, like photographers taking pictures of the same scene but from different angles, share complementary foci. On the other side of the coin is the final track, “In Relationship To The Circumstance…” Its gestural fabric is rendered opaque by the illusion of space between instruments. The sparseness is dark matter made audible. Watts plays the roll of bait and the others fish hooked to its line, flailing for one last song.

Like Barre Phillips, Guy is a bassist who avoids pigeonholes like the plague, but with an art that is ultimately healing. This is one of his many effective prescriptions.

Back cover

Globe Unity: Compositions (JAPO 60027)


Globe Unity

Enrico Rava trumpet
Kenny Wheeler trumpet, flugelhorn
Manfred Schoof trumpet, flugelhorn
Albert Mangelsdorff trombone
Günther Christmann trombone
Paul Rutherford trombone, euphonium
Steve Lacy soprano saxophone (piano interior on “Worms”)
Evan Parker tenor and soprano saxophones
Gerd Dudek tenor and soprano saxophones, flute
Michel Pilz bass clarinet
Alexander von Schlippenbach piano
Bob Stewart tuba
Buschi Niebergall bass
Paul Lovens drums, percussion, etc.
Recorded January 1979 at Tonstudio Bauer, Ludwigsburg
Engineer: Martin Wieland
Produced by Globe Unity with Thomas Stöwsand and Steve Lake in cooperation with the WDR, Cologne

Globe Unity’s Compositions makes a natural partner to Improvisations, also released on JAPO. This is the last of the collective’s three albums for ECM’s sister label, and ends a sporadic tenure with colorful tapestries of internally composed pieces. What makes this album such an archival treasure its early glimpse into the compositional careers of trumpeters Kenny Wheeler, Enrico Rava, and Manfred Schoof.

“Nodagoo” is quintessentially Wheelerian, opening with a solemn tuba before erupting into a late-night free jazz masterstroke spearheaded by Evan Parker on tenor. All the classic elements are there: an almost literary feel for structure, with room to grow, and a penchant for contrasts. Rava’s “Flat Feet” blends just the sort of playfulness and heavy traction one might expect from his younger self. One can’t help but read a symphony of smiles into its jaunty contours. It is, as might be expected, a delightful tangle of trumpets, but legendary trombonist Albert Mangelsdorff gives us plenty of meat to chew on as well. Rava is a burst of flame and a joy to experience on such historical terms. The trumpet squeals of Schoof’s “Reflections” begin the album’s most cinematic track, which follows an unusual narrative arc through Parker’s circular sopranism and Alexander von Schlippenbach’s sensitive monologue on piano, while the brass and winds suspend their motives high above sea level.

Von Schlippenbach himself offers two pieces. “Boa” has a more nostalgic, big band sound, kept confidently in check by drummer Paul Lovens at every turn. Superb solos on soprano saxophone (courtesy of the inimitable Steve Lacy) and bass clarinet (Michel Pilz) make this slice of anatomical fortitude glow like a lightning bug. “The Forge,” which ends the album, is a propulsive blast of gold that boasts some of the most concentrated playing on the record. Trombonist Günther Christmann’s offering is “Trom-bone-it,” a jovial piece that grows from outtake to full-force jungle. Such elevations are Globe Unity’s forte and reveal an astonishing ability to keep every expression clear in the face of chaos. Like the Art Ensemble of Chicago at its loudest, this one takes fun seriously. Lacy counters with “Worms,” which bears suitable dedication to Ezra Pound, whose gnarled poetics can be heard in musical parallels throughout the 10-minute piece. Its massive chains of dissonance give relatively little room for solo space, opting instead for a grander, organic ecosystem.

While not as exciting as its freely improvised predecessors, Compositions nonetheless affords more than enough space for the unexpected and is a worthy stopover on your JAPO collecting adventures.

Back cover

TOK: Paradox (JAPO 60029)



Takashi Kako piano
Kent Carter bass
Oliver Johnson drums
Recorded June 1979 at Tonstudio Bauer, Ludwigsburg
Engineer: Martin Wieland
Produced by Steve Lake

That Japanese pianist Takashi Kako has spent much of his career as an accomplished classical pianist should come as no surprise to anyone who listens to this album, which documents a time in his life when he was heavily involved in the French free jazz movement at its zenith. It was during this period that, in 1979, he formed TOK, an acronym of its members, of whom drummer Oliver Johnson and bassist Kent Carter completed the trio. Paradox was the band’s only record (although in 2004, the Japanese label PJL did release an archival disc comprised of studio and live masters recorded in Japan in 1978 and 1979, respectively). All of its pieces are by Kako, save for the last, the fantastic “Wobbly Walk Parade,” by Carter. This carnival dream expands the trio’s standard palette, adding cello to its composer’s toolkit; celesta to Kako’s; toy piano, tambourine, and vocals to Johnson’s; and featuring an unexpected appearance by producer Steve Lake on harpsichord (!). Leading up to this whimsical flourish is a program of striking originality, which is all the more intensified by Kako’s undeniable acuity at the keyboard. Certainly his time in Paris has worn off here, as riffs resembling those of the great 20th-century French composers—including his teacher, Olivier Messiaen—are recognizable throughout.

The OK to Kako’s T are finely supportive, responding to every dip and spiral of the pianist’s flights over delectable comping. Each listens to the other before deciding on a single note. Whether riding the groove of “Dodéc” or painting with shadow in “A Lua De Portugal,” the trio shares equal duties in the evocation department. Between Carter’s elasticity, Johnson’s adaptive timekeeping, and and Kako’s denser ligaments, the resulting music hides in a crawl space somewhere between classical and jazz.

But Paradox throws its brightest spotlight on Kako, whose piano piece “Night Music” shows the beginnings of what has since grown into a lauded career as solo performer. Another return to roots is “Sekitei” (the title means “rock garden” in Japanese), which is the album’s masterwork. This painterly piece takes chamber jazz to a high level of abstraction that is almost linguistic, diagnostic. Every new element in its unfolding becomes integral to the whole and, although in seeming contrast to the title, rather accurately captures the blossoming order of chaos in this often-misunderstood art form.

Easily among the finest JAPO releases.

Peter Warren: Solidarity (JAPO 60034)


Peter Warren

Peter Warren bass, cello
John Purcell saxophones
John Scofield guitar
Jack DeJohnette drums
Ray Anderson trombone
Recorded May 1981 at Grog Kill Studio, New York
Engineer: Tom Mark
Produced by Jack DeJohnette

Bassist Peter Warren quite simply put out one of the finest albums in the JAPO catalogue: the long out-of-print Solidarity. Warren is one of a cadre of American jazz musicians who made a career for themselves in Europe, where his idiosyncratic approach was enriched and encouraged by the likes of Edward Vesala, Rolf Kühn, and Albert Mangelsdorff. In 1974, he returned to New York City, where he joined forces with Jack DeJohnette’s Special Edition, appearing on the classic ECM sessions Special Edition and Tin Can Alley. It was in that context where he also met reedman John Purcell, who along with the drummer was carried over into this phenomenal one-off band, rounded out by guitarist John Scofield and, for the set’s first half, trombonist Ray Anderson.

Anderson dominates the starter, “Riff-Raff,” which emphasizes his fiery tone against a groovy backdrop. His energy proves infectious, taking root in Warren and DeJohnette’s spirited contributions to the playing field. Scofield responds with a well-constructed solo of his own, minimal by comparison but no less robust for its underbite, while Purcell’s alto croons and cries. The overall effect here, as in the title track that follows, is one of meticulous abandon, whereby the latter tune’s circular bass intro betrays nothing of the tension about to unfurl.

The album’s remainder subtracts the trombone, shifting register into a darker quartet. Purcell’s soprano fogs the window of “Mlle. Jolie,” making for an attractive ballad further deepened by DeJohnette’s rarely-heard-but-always-artful pianism. Warren focuses on the infrared portion of his emotional spectrum, while Scofield dances on air. “Lisa’s Tilt” finds Purcell darker still on alto in a track that swings more than any other on the album. DeJohnette is noticeably foregrounded, holding every seam together, even as the band finishes in a swanky free for all. As a postscript, Warren offers “I Remember Stu,” on which he plays bass and cello in a piece written in memory of Stu Martin, whom he thanks in his acknowledgments “for his love and musical inspiration.”

Solidarity is characterized, among other aspects, by its ebb and flow, which at one moment may cast a spell and the next push through it like water through a broken dam. And with DeJohnette producing, the listener is left with an elusive but unquestionable winner.

The Globe Unity Orchestra: Intergalactic Blow (JAPO 60039)

Intergalactic Blow

The Globe Unity Orchestra
Intergalactic Blow

Toshinori Kondo trumpet
Kenny Wheeler trumpet
Günter Christmann trombone
George Lewis trombone, effects
Albert Mangelsdorff trombone
Bob Stewart tuba
Gerd Dudek flute, soprano saxophone, tenor saxophone
Evan Parker soprano saxophone, tenor saxophone
Ernst-Ludwig Petrowsky flute, alto saxophone, baritone saxophone
Alexander von Schlippenbach piano
Alan Silva bass
Paul Lovens drums
Recorded June 4, 1982 at Studio 105, Radio France/Paris.
Recording engineer: Jean Deloron
Mixing engineer: Martin Wieland
Produced by Thomas Stöwsand

Beginning in 1966, the Globe Unity Orchestra sparked a four decades-long run that intersected with the JAPO label on three counts. For this, the group’s second for ECM’s sister label, founder Alexander von Schlippenbach hand-selected a set of free improvisations emitted in a Paris studio in June of 1982.

Even more noticeable this time around are the contributions of its brass players, especially trumpeters Kenny Wheeler and Toshinori Kondo (who takes the place of Manfred Schoof from the last record). Their methods of integration on the opening track, “Quasar,” set a tone that is dashed as quickly as it is established. From the farthest reaches of inner space, the musicians work their way to the front altar of the mind, where Ernst-Ludwig Petrowsky’s baritone files its utterances in living order. Tuba (Bob Stewart) and piano (von Schlippenbach) speak out of time—one from the future, the other for the past. Such is the ethos of the hour.

Even at its densest, Globe Unity makes sure to leave a door open for even the most transient listener, so that “Phase A” and “Phase B” feel no more connected by name than they are by process. It is their very incongruity that partners them in the album’s grander scheme, interpretable only after the fact. Their gestures are more jagged, turned from shining to brilliant by Evan Parker’s unmistakable soprano. Like the group as a whole, he takes rising levels of intensity as opportunities for sane reflection, thus allowing himself the strongest benefit of performance: being heard.

Drummer Paul Lovens is another master in this pool of many, adding to the 19-minute “Mond Im Skorpion” a scripture’s worth of microscopy. Amid this bramble of riffs and utterances, he treats every melodic branch as a fuse to be lit, and every lit fuse as a pathway toward new understanding of the improviser’s craft. Von Schlippenbach is again noteworthy for attuning to that same inner habitus, an environmental assemblage where one has to know where one has been in order to move toward the unknown. For even as reeds and brass elbow the horizon with the force of sunset, they hold the following morning in their chests. A snake-charming soprano seems to mock the wayward Orientalist who sees travel solely as a means of sticking another postcard in the scrapbook. Indeed, you will find no tourists here—only the artisans selling their wares on the outskirts of town, far from the crowded bazaar, where a cacophonous ending sings, proclaims, and teases every tether of dusk so that it might pull out another day from under our feet.

Globe Unity keeps everything clear and, thanks further to Thomas Stöwsand’s flawless production, ensures that every shout is also a whisper, and vice versa.