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Andy Sheppard - Freedom Within The Discipline

12 July 2016 | Guy Smith

London Calling caught up with jazz musician Andy Sheppard as his current group, the Carla Bley Trio prepared to embark on an extensive European tour. They'll perform throughout July including a one-night-only appearance at Ronnie Scott’s on Sunday 17th July.

Since releasing his debut album in 1987, Andy Sheppard is one of the few British jazz musicians to have had a lasting impact on European jazz in recent years. He has recorded 13 albums as leader as well as many others with an array of collaborators and also as a sideman with musicians including Gil Evans, George Russell and John Martyn.
Sheppard is currently part of the Carla Bley Trio along with Bley’s musical partner and husband Steve Swallow. A new album, ‘Andando el Tiempo’, has just been released which marks Bley’s 80th birthday. Still prolific and innovative, Bley is a pianist and composer who was a key figure in the free jazz scene of the 1960s. 

London Calling: I saw you at Café Oto last night [an improvisational gig with Eddie Prévost and John Edwards] - you seemed to be having a great time?
Andy Sheppard: I enjoyed it. It was a challenge and not something I have done for a few years. I played with a Swiss band called Vein in Bristol the night before and their music is quite complex, so to sit in with them was a great experience too. My band Trio Libero [with Michel Benita and Polar Bear’s Sebastian Rochford] was largely improvised. Rather than an energy-driven sound we were seeking line and form, writing tunes while improvising.
 
LC: Your career so far has covered every possible project permutation – duos, trios, big bands, soundtracks, improvisation – are there any areas you would still like to explore?
AS: I’m constantly thinking of new projects and there are so many things I would still like to do. I’ve recently written a piece for a community choir called “The Divine Paradox of Human Beings in Paradise.” The libretto for that was a real challenge to write.
I’ve also just accepted a gig with a Korean musician in October who plays an instrument similar to the kora. That should be really interesting. I love to be challenged.
 
LC: You’re currently playing with Carla Bley. Did the connection start when Steve Swallow [Bley’s partner] produced your debut album?
AS: Yes. When I got a record deal I was told I needed a producer. I’d been listening to John Scofield’s records produced by Steve and really liked them so brought him in to produce the record.
He played the record to Carla who then called me for a big band tour. She asked me to play tenor sax, soprano sax and clarinet. I explained that I didn’t play the clarinet. She repeated: “tenor, soprano and clarinet…” So I said yes and she hung up. Not long after a motorcycle courier delivered a package to me, inside was a clarinet with a note saying: “Learn it!” I quickly learned what was required for the tour and gave it back to Carla after the last show.
 
LC: Carla has just celebrated her 80th birthday and is still incredibly productive. That must be inspirational?
AS: Absolutely. She’s an incredible composer and plays stripped-back, beautiful tunes. Many of her tunes are standards now… the legacy of her compositions… her ideas, voicings… diminished scales, whole tone scales… just amazing. You never stop learning as a musician.  The band launched the new album at Steinway Hall in New York and, rather than play tunes from the new album, Carla had written a new piece to perform that evening! She is always looking forward, writing new music, being creative. It’s like David Hockney said, “I’m going to go on until I fall over…” That’s how she is.
 
LC: The new album, Andando el Tiempo [The Passing of Time], is a beautiful album and the title seems apt considering the recent notable birthday? Or does it allude to something else?
AS: It’s about addiction and the recovery from addiction, the pain and unending torment. The major/minor chords and seven bar sequences correspond to the seemingly never-ending process of addiction. It’s very harmonically and melodically complex music and, I think, requires several listens to fully appreciate it.
A sound engineer working on the record described it as ‘a post-modern apartment with no comfortable chairs.’ I think that’s a nice description but I think the ‘chairs’ become more comfortable the longer you sit in them!
 
LC: Can you tell me a bit about how the album was created? Are the tunes fully formed when you receive them or do you add your own lines to the music?
AS: It’s all written by Carla but there is room to improvise within the tunes. A freedom within the discipline, if you like. A good example would be the track Saints Alive! from the new album where both Steve and I improvise around the main structure of the song. Pushing the boundaries within a tune is important to Carla.

LC: An album of introspective and thoughtful music, particularly on ECM Records, is often labelled as ‘chamber jazz’, does this bother you?
AS: I listen to a lot of new things, on ECM and elsewhere, and I believe that you should strive for the best possible sound you can for your music… music at the highest level, capturing that magical moment in the studio.
When I signed to ECM I asked Manfred [Eicher, head of ECM Records] how long I had to record an album. He said that if you can’t do it in 2 days then why bother? We recorded in Lugano [ECM’s studio in Switzerland] with no headphones, no booths, almost live… a perfect recording environment that created an almost organic process. Manfred is the master of placing the microphone and capturing the right take. He will say, “…that’s the one” and he will always be right.
 
LC: How do you view the jazz scene in Europe at the moment?
AS: It’s healthy in terms of young musicians both here and in Europe but the audience in England is problematic. London is London… but outside [the capital] the audience is getting older. I think jazz needs to find a younger audience. Norway is particularly strong at the moment, there seem to be many good musicians coming from there.
 
LC: What’s your next project after the European tour with Carla Bley?
AS: It’s been a busy year so far... I’ve been to India, Lebanon, all over. I’m working with Rita Marcotulli in September and I’ll be writing some new music for my band Surrounded By Sea to tour in early 2017 with an album to be released later next year. Hopefully the phone will ring too with other interesting offers!
 
Andy Sheppard will play Ronnie Scott’s in Soho as part of the Carla Bley Trio on Sunday 17th July - their only UK appearance of the tour. Don’t miss it!

Tickets: £30.00 - £47.50 |  Doors: 6.30pm
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