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Andy Sheppard quartet, Coltrane ballads, St George’s Jan 13th

January 16, 2011
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Coltrane tributes abound, but they don’t usually focus on the great Ballads album from 1962 – though there was a well-reviewed vocal treatment of the set a few years ago. It is a little out of the run of Trane’s mid-period classics – Morton and Cooke’s Penguin guide suggests that Coltrane was having dental problems which gave him trouble with articulation, and chose the ballad programme partly to work around that. Certainly, the sound is less metallically imposing than on other sessions laid down in the same studio. On other hand, the tenor-player’s love of Johnny Hodges may have induced this lighter, more easeful approach to the American song book.  Ben Ratliff’s great book on the development of Coltrane’s sound doesn’t mention the teeth, just the idea of an audience-friendly follow-up to the success of My Favourite Things.

The result was certainly a contrast with the lengthy workouts of the (awesomely great) Live at the Village Vanguard Sessions from the previous year. In what Morton and Cooke term Coltrane’s “constant war between rage and beauty”, it was a brief ascendancy for beauty. It is still the great quartet though, and a powerful record. And its low-key intensity was well-suited to Andy Sheppard’s style – as this fine evening at St George’s proved.

Sheppard famously took up playing after hearing Coltrane’s saxophone on record. (Strange to recall that while he was only a few years older than the still active octogenarian Sonny Rollins, Coltrane died in 1967 when Sheppard was aged 10, so he heard him only on record – though his influence is all-pervasive.) Here he followed the approach of the record closely – all the main set tunes but one (I think) were from the Ballads album. The emphasis was on laying out the tunes as arrestingly as possible. Solos were mostly brief, save for a crowd-pleasing, circular breathing coda which rounded off the first set and successfully evoked the more expansive side of Coltrane live. There was solid, unassuming, support from the local quartet Sheppard put together for the occasion – Dan Moore on Piano, Thad Kelly on bass and Daisy Palmer on drums, Palmer the most demonstrative but all devoting themselves to the tunes rather than grandstanding. The whole thing was done without amplification which (from the back of the gallery – this show was a sell-out) sounded pretty good under St George’s high ceiling. In short, while it seemed a little odd in prospect to settle in for an all ballad evening, it worked terrifically well – aside from an odd treatment of Naima which didn’t benefit from a shuffle rhythm…

Was it as good as the original – the album which Sheppard quietly insisted “everyone in the world should have”? Of course not. It wasn’t Coltrane, and nor was it Tyner, Garrison or Elvin Jones – three more of the best players of the music who ever lived, who all did their best work when they were together in Coltrane’s group. Was it worth doing? Absolutely.

Now looking forward to next Thursday’s date at Cabot Circus, where Phil Robson brings a band with an astonishingly good personnel including another great tenor player, Mark Turner. Should be one of the best gigs of 2011

p.s. Telegraph review of the gig here

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