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Appreciating Andy Sheppard

January 9, 2017
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What does it take to get to know a jazz player’s work well? Repeated listening, obviously. Recording allows that. But then there’s more to be gained by hearing them live, preferably in different settings. The often-heard advice to hearken to your local musicians rather than just pursue star performers is right. Even better, your local scene may harbour a star performer who you can enjoy again and again.

That’s been our good fortune in Bristol with Andy Sheppard. A capacity crowd at the Hen and Chicken just before Christmas heard Ian Storror finish 2016 as he began it, with Sheppard’s quartet Hotel Bristol. It was a kind of farewell gig, as Sheppard is moving to Portugal in 2017. He’ll be back for some local dates – guest spots like the one he made at the Fringe last week, I imagine – and as I’ve mentioned before he’s doing a big show at the jazz festival featuring a new score for Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. But he won’t be the regular presence on the Bristol scene he’s been since the ’80s.

That was before my time here but it’s been a privilege to hear his work up close so often for the last decade. I knew the sound well before I came, from numerous recordings. If you’re a Carla Bley completist – and who isn’t? – you automatically own a big batch of the man’s best work. You know the formidable control in all registers. The ability to switch from breathy intimacy, to fluted laments, to old-fashioned raunch. And that’s just on tenor: the soprano playing, and improvising, has extra dimensions still. Add the seemingly endless melodic invention of the compositions on his own recordings, and you have more good things than one artist can normally provide.

But it turned out there was more – quite a lot more. He’s obviously someone who, if he’s in town, would sooner go out to play of an evening than stop at home. So I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard Sheppard in the last ten years.

Not going to list them all, but they include solo shows (at St George’s and in the intimacy of the Alma Theatre), dates for the increasingly impressive Hotel Bristol, a band put together for a festival date that grew to have it’s own repertoire, regular sightings of the hugely enjoyable Pushy Doctors with Dan Moore and irrepressible Tony Orrell joining in playful renditions of other people’s tunes, guest spots with Vein, collaborations with James Morton, a commission for a giant choir to mark Bristol’s year as European Green Capital, a splendid recreation of John Coltrane’s Ballads album, the occasional duo with John Parricelli and quite a few gigs for Jon Taylor that were just “Andy Sheppard and Friends” – lots and lots of gigs that never made it on to audio, or video – they were just for the weekly jazz punters of Bristol. Lucky us.

That all happened alongside the larger scale festival gigs, in Bristol, Cheltenham or Bath, for Carla Bley small bands, and – as his association with ECM has blossomed – Sheppard’s own Trio Libero and quartets.

I’ve never quite got used to being able to hear someone as good as this, week in week out, often just down the street. It doesn’t make music less of an occasion – familiarity surely breeds deeper appreciation. As I say, almost all of it was gone on the air, so here’s a video of the great trio with Carla and Steve Swallow instead. The point is that, although they perform with the empathy of a decades long collaboration on the world stage, Andy pretty well always plays at this level.

 

It’s been a huge pleasure to get to know his playing better in all these contexts. At the Hen and Chicken gig, Sheppard called for applause to acknowledge Ian Storror’s tireless efforts to promote jazz in Bristol – and quite right too. But his own presence has been invaluable too. How great for promoters to have a world class player who wants to book in as many live dates as he can, and will get an audience every time. They, and we, will miss him.

So thanks, Mr Sheppard and bon voyage. Now, who’s going to help me to persuade Iain Ballamy to move up to Bristol?

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