Bley/Sheppard/Swallow: Songs With Legs (WATT/26)

Songs With Legs

Carla Bley
Andy Sheppard
Steve Swallow
Songs With Legs

Carla Bley piano
Andy Sheppard tenor and soprano saxophones
Steve Swallow bass
Recorded live on tour in France, Italy, Austria, Germany, Turkey, and England, May 1994
Engineer: Bill Strode
Mixed at Grog Kill Studio, Willow, New York
Engineer: Tom Mark
General co-ordination: Ilene Mark
Produced by Carla Bley and Steve Swallow
Release date: January 1, 1995

Songs With Legs is easily among my Top 5 WATT releases. Not only for the wonderful music it contains, but also for debuting of one of the finest trios still working today (see my review of their performance at Denver’s Dazzle last year). By this time, pianist/composer Carla Bley had already found her soulmate in electric bassist Steve Swallow and had released a couple of duo albums to prove it. But saxophonist Andy Sheppard had appeared on a few of Bley’s big band projects and was proving himself to be a natural fit in her sonic nucleus. This first triangulation of their gifts is magic from corner to corner to corner.

Slightly off-kilter pianism introduces “Real Life Hits,” a scene that only Bley could have painted with these two allies. Recorded live during a European tour in May of 1994, this performance captures the spirit of in-the-moment interplay. Swallow assumes a guitarist’s role, adding delicate chords and harmonies, while Sheppard, thus far notable for his muscular tenor playing in larger ensemble contexts, assumes the rounded comportment through soprano. That said, his smoky tenor pairs exceptionally well with the Thelonious Monk standby “Misterioso” and Bley’s own “The Lord Is Listenin’ To Ya, Hallelujah!” The latter, having undergone a soulful mellowing since its last appearance on Carla Bley’s Live!, feels more like a prayer of gratitude than a desperate call for grace. Swallow’s comforts know no bounds here.

As ever, whimsy waits in the wings, and we get plenty of it in “Chicken” (more of a duo showcase for piano and bass, with some subtle tenor swing for good measure) and “Wrong Key Donkey,” which peaks at 12 minutes and, as with Bley’s previously iterated tunes, gives up its secrets without hesitation so that we might feel its story from the inside out. Bley’s reading is linear and honest, while Sheppard’s soprano waters flower after expository flower. Swallow’s solo is subdued yet rich. The trio ends with “Crazy With You.” This love letter to creativity, laid sweetly on the altar of life, points our attention to self-evident truths, and by that gesture confirms Bley’s star in the constellation of jazz history.

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” (Aoidh, 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.)

Sheppard/Benita/Rochford: Trio Libero (ECM 2252)

Trio Libero

Trio Libero

Andy Sheppard tenor and soprano saxophones
Michel Benita double-bass
Sebastian Rochford drums
Recorded July 2011, Auditorio Radiotelevisione svizerra, Lugano
Engineer: Stefano Amerio
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Putting on Trio Libero’s self-titled debut is like putting on a cashmere robe: it feels that good.

The level of comfort shared by saxophonist Andy Sheppard, bassist Michel Benita, and drummer Sebastian Rochford bears out from the first moments of opener “Libertino” with a looseness that never loses sight or hold of things. The themes are forthcoming but never insistent. An early solo from Benita trades off with some beautiful blowing from Sheppard, who unwinds a kite string toward cloudless sky. “Slip Duty” fronts Rochford’s limber bodywork as it traverses the landscape of his kit. To this percolating core Benita and Sheppard contribute structurally thematic elements in a variety of densities. “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows” features Sheppard on soprano. Despite the whimsical title, it describes a world of honest reflection. The two-part “Spacewalk” indeed balances gravity and buoyancy, an alterity of pathos that breathes melody and ends with a nebular cry for solidarity. “Dia da Liberdade” opens with an almost mournful bass solo, a lullaby for the fallen that trips the pulse of Sheppard’s wood-planed entrance. At times one can hear Paul Motian speaking through the drumming (he would pass away only four months after this album was recorded), only with a moth’s added murmuring. “Land of Nod” features more astuteness from Rochford in step with bass and piano. Don’t let the title fool you. It is one of the album’s livelier tracks and ripples beautifully at Sheppard’s fingertips as might a pond’s surface at the touch of a leaf. “The Unconditional Secret” is by far the most beautiful statement of the album. Its diurnal collage unites dreams and realities in a collage of transparencies. “Ishidatami” begins with another lovely bass intro, now with a sopranism as lithe as a tightrope walker bounding from anchor to anchor. The title, it bears noting, is a Japanese term for paving stones used to maintain navigable pathways in erosion-prone mountain passages, and serves well as a metaphor for the band’s unity. “Skin / Kaa” sustains a rubato flow into the modal tributary of “Whereveryougoigotoo,” the latter distinguished by its masterfully legato tenoring. “Lots of Stairs” is a weary but never wearying traversal. Under guise of balladry, “When We Live On The Stars…” concludes with a promise that the people and pleasures we adore will still be waiting for us when we wake.

Nowhere within these relatively brief tunes will you find demonstrative solos or waving of virtuosic flags. That said, it requires a special kind of virtuosity to carry off such music so humbly, and with a spirit that is as naked as the day all of us were born. This is the art of the trio, liberated.

(To hear samples of Trio Libero, click the image below.)

Trio Libero Photo


Andy Sheppard: Movements in Colour (ECM 2062)

Movements in Colour

Andy Sheppard
Movements in Colour

Andy Sheppard soprano and tenor saxophones
John Parricelli acoustic and electric guitars
Eivind Aarset guitar, electronics
Arild Andersen double-bass, electronics
Kuljit Bhamra tabla, percussion
Recorded February 2008, Studios La Buissonne, Pernes-les-Fontaines
Recording engineer: Gérard de Haro
Assistant: Nicolas Baillard
Mixed January 2009 by Gérard de Haro, Manfred Eicher, and Andy Sheppard
Produced by Manfred Eicher

British saxophonist Andy Sheppard’s ECM debut is a phenomenon in sound. A musician of remarkable integrity, Sheppard takes full advantage of the opportunity to broaden his reach farther than ever before. For this project, he indulges in his Indian, African, and Latin affinities, as reflected in the eclectic lineup that shapes this set into something greater than the sum of its parts. Guitarists John Parricelli (last heard on Kenny Wheeler’s A Long Time Ago) and Eivind Aarset weave acoustic and electronic impulses into a yielding web of support throughout; Arild Andersen, a bassist who can do no wrong, brings melodic heft to what might otherwise have been a supporting role; and tabla master Kuljit Bhamra makes his only ECM appearance in a fine showing of percussive breadth.

Sheppard himself likens Movements in Colour to a dream made realizable only through the fit of its talent. In this respect, Bhamra is a revelation. Encounters with tabla in a jazz context are sure to inspire memories of Collin Walcott’s all-too-short career, but here the results are more akin to Charles Lloyd’s powerful Sangam trio with Eric Harland and Zakir Hussain. Bhamra’s entrance in the 15-minute opener “La Tristesse Du Roi” touches off an intimate symphony, more figural than instrumental. Light-footed yet secure, his stitching keeps the sky from blowing away like a cloth in a cosmic sneeze. Gorgeous bassing and keening electric guitar add a dual coat of ash and flame to the eggshell of this freshly hatched bird. Andersen stands out early on, tracing our ears as would a master painter lay down the underdrawing. His contributions continue to shine as fully embodied images, even from beneath the layers of Sheppard’s melodic gifts.

The album’s compositions—fully Sheppard originals—are its lifeblood. “Bing” is a particularly luminescent example. Bhamra and Sheppard play beautifully off each other, while Parricelli adds cosmic sheen. Ghosts of influence haunt this and other tunes. One might trace lines of flight back to Jan Garbarek, whose muscled lyricism echoes in “Nave Nave Moe” and “May Song,” although the music is quintessentially Sheppard’s own. Deeper contacts abound in “Ballarina,” which by virtue of its shaded, waltzing comportment sounds like a Paul Motian sketch.

The final two tracks of the disc, “We Shall Not Go To Market Today” and “International Blue,” give offering to land and sky, respectively. Where one is a patch of sunlight on misty canvas, thus hinting at spring thaw with its celebratory undercurrent, the other floats Sheppard’s insights over Aarset’s wash of electricity. Andersen gives foothold throughout, indicating only barely the wistfulness of things.

Affirmative and healing, Movements in Colour is a collect call from the ether. Sheppard’s virtuosity is such that one hardly feels the focus and effort required to translate the messages thereof. His mastery of the saxophone’s periphery in particular breathes like the rest of us, singing even as it speaks.

By far one of ECM’s best of the new millennium.

Carla Bley: Trios (ECM 2287)


Carla Bley

Carla Bley piano
Andy Sheppard tenor and soprano saxophones
Steve Swallow bass
Recorded April 2013, Auditorio Radiotelevisione svizzera, Lugano
Engineer: Stefano Amerio
Produced by Manfred Eicher

As the first leader date by Carla Bley to appear on ECM, Trios is a benchmark event. Having populated the label’s satellite ventures—notably WATT and JCOA—for four decades, there was never any need to shelter the legendary pianist-composer from the rain under the parent umbrella, for her climate is her own and here brings a quiet storm. With bandmates Steve Swallow (electric bass) and Andy Sheppard (saxophones) she hands to the eager listener a thoughtful program of original material that crystallizes decades more of intuitive collaboration.

Bley notes the oddity, if not also the liberation, of recording in the presence of producer Manfred Eicher: “This was the first time in my life that I’d worked under the direction of a producer and I wanted to know what it was like, and what I could gain from it. He had some wild ideas—like starting with ‘Utviklingssang,’ which we’d normally play after a few fast numbers, or as an encore.” Indeed, caught in the spell of the album’s opener, one can’t help but feel welcomed by Swallow’s introductory embrace. Its shape is horizontal but its feel is aquatic, adrift in a vessel fashioned from hammers and reed. Bley’s unity with Swallow is the perfect seascape for Sheppard’s quiet Schooner. The latter’s tenoring is, by turns, unbreakable and thin as winter ice, at times hiding behind a veil of bare audibility, while Swallow’s tone is more rounded and resonant to the core. The Norwegian title of this lilting theme translates as “Development Song,” and is as apt a description as any of Bley’s compositional craft, for this and every piece that follows shows evolution internally and in combination with others.

Although it would be futile to single out any one musician above the others in such an intimate congregation, each player does have moments of peak clarity. Sheppard’s silken soprano, for one, enchants in “Vashkar” with fluid moon-bursts and leaping, yet never overextended, arpeggios. Lightly stitched by Swallow’s skeletal bass line, the unit builds methodical ascent into an attic of potent melodic storage. This is also the album’s oldest partition, well worn by ECM listeners from its appearance on 1975’s Hotel Hello, the classic duo session between Swallow and Gary Burton. As writer Paul Haines, of whom the titular Vashkar was a dear friend, once noted, “Swallow seems always to be playing from within the music,” and one need listen no further than “Les Trois Lagons” for evidence. This triptych of “Plates” draws its inspiration from a 1947 book of paper cutouts by Henri Matisse entitled, appropriately enough, Jazz. That these pieces achieve the album’s deepest traction is due in large part to Swallow’s effortless continuity, which keeps Sheppard’s effervescence from touching sky by holding it to roots. Even when Bley embraces the foreground for a little while, she cannot help but coax the ever-vibrant Swallow from hiding into an interactive fairytale. The central tableau emotes a club feel. One can almost feel the warmth of a glass-enclosed candle flame flickering at the center of a corner table while the din of conversation makes way for the rustle of clothing and nostalgic gazes. Melodically unfolded and deepened by Swallow’s pliant sensibilities into a cocktail of regret and resolution, it stretches the night as if it were made of muscle. The final section boasts a wondrous economy of expression from Bley. Her spiral staircase of block chords ushers in echoes from Swallow and Sheppard and brings dark inflections into light.

The album’s second threefold suite comes in the form of “Wildlife,” which finds the pianist enamored by her artful surroundings and shaded yet fertile atmosphere. Like a child lifting a fallen tree, it revels in the wealth of life squirming beneath. Some moments are bound to remind listeners of early Lyle Mays, simultaneously grounding and singing with unwavering insight. It is the pinnacle of the album’s many achievements.

Last but far from least is one final trilogy, “The Girl Who Cried Champagne.” What begins as a tender groove of introspective proportion turns into an excursion of great distance. With the regularity of ocean surf, Bley paints waves with her eyes closed and by this rhythm Swallow is inspired to adorn the ether with his curvaceous filigree. Along with Sheppard’s language, it forges a nonabrasive ebullience that flows without impediment until the reedman leads the trio with responsive brushwork to a halt, pitch-perfect and smiling.

Trios is the virtuosity of restraint personified and is played with a breeziness that speaks of immense experience and shared knowledge. The music enacts a logical, astute progression—from gas to liquid to solid—that is so open one can lie down and float comfortably into its spell. It’s a level of comfort and freedom that only the most heartfelt journeying can bring, and its first step touches earth the moment you press PLAY.

(To hear samples of Trios, click here.)