The Andy Sheppard Quartet comprises the three members of an existing unit, Trio Libero—namely Andy Sheppard, Michel Benita and Sebastian Rochford, who first came together in 2008—plus Norwegian guitarist Eivind Aarset.
The trio’s only album to date, Trio Libero (2012) was a democratic affair, an egoless give-and-take between three simpatico partners, each of whom provided new material for the songbook. Surrounded by Sea (ECM) is similar, but it’s very much an Andy Sheppard album, with Sheppard writing five of the album’s eight original compositions and co-writing another.
Eivind Aarset was a featured guitarist on Sheppard’s first ECM recording, Movements In Colour (2008), and made his own ECM debut with Dream Logic in 2012, the year he also guested on Food’s Mercurial Balm. He also plays in the Trio Libero bassist Michel Benita’s Ethics Quartet.
The music of the guitarist’s earlier recordings, such as Connected (Jazzland, 2004), would’ve integrated beautifully into the spacious, electronica-acoustic mode of recent recordings by Seb Rochford’s Polar Bear. Incorporating elements of glitch or ‘cuts & clicks’ electronica, his sounds would complement Leafcutter John’s electronics nicely.
But Aarset’s more recent work is more refined, and his impact on the exquisite temperance of the road-tested Trio Libero is often profound. Witness how, on the current album’s brisk, crisp opener, “Tipping Point”, Sheppard’s lyricism is buoyed by Aarset’s warm wash of processed electric guitar, all impetus deferred to a snappy cymbal/snare rhythm and an uptempo contrabass pulse.
The guitarist’s richly textural playing fills the gaps in the Trio Libero sound, so that the quartet operates on a different plane.
The title “I Want To Vanish” could well describe the leader’s pared-back melodicism, but the shapely clarity of his phrasing on this piece has an ineluctable beauty, crystalliing into perfection, like Wayne Shorter’s conception under microscopy. But one realises with surprise that it’s the other members of the quartet who self-efface the most, balancing restraint with acute intensity. The song, incidentally, was written by Elvis Costello, but you’d never guess.
The only other pieces not composed by Sheppard are three takes on a Scottish Gaelic traditional, “Aoidh, Na Dean Cadal Idir” (“Aoidh, don’t sleep at all”). Each is an excerpt from a single performance, now threaded through the album’s sequencing. “Part 1”, for all its limpid grace, is the most substantial; “Part 2”, just over a minute long, is cut peremptorily short after a shapely Sheppard solo; “Part 3” is more relaxed, with the quartet flexing and unfurling.
“Origin Of Species” proceeds as a series of exhalations, Benita’s bass the lungs, until Sheppard elaborates a lyric solo that everything else cushions and bolsters. Then, on Seb Rochford’s “They Aren’t Perfect And Neither Am I”, Aarset gets to play something that’s other than fleetingly lovely. Nothing flashy, just more detailed, stippling applied to Benita’s bowed and strummed contrabass, and reverb’d notes picked amid the halting pulse of Rochford’s drumming.
The keynote throughout is tasteful restraint. Witness the pulsing, rhythmically regular “Medication”, on which Rochford plays at a featherweight gallop under the leader’s breathy tenor sax solo; or the poignantly lovely “The Impossibility Of Silence”, where equally lyrical alto and plucked bass twine slowly in a smokefall of shimmering guitar and brushed percussion.
“I See Your Eyes Before Me” begins forcefully in context, with Aarset’s guitar sounding processed peals against Sheppard’s lithe melodicism. But even this piece, which flirts with a loud/quiet dynamic, is constantly on the verge of recoil.
I could’ve done with more of Rochford’s playfulness, and looked to Michel Bonita for another variation of mood, but the bassist’s unpretentious offering, “A Letter”, sees him carry the melody for a while only to cede it to Sheppard for low-key elaboration.
One of the biggest surprises comes in a dedication, explicit in the last of Sheppard’s titles, “Looking For Ornette”. But there’s no trace of Ornette Coleman’s forthright analytical and emotive concision here, rather a soft-focus radiance of inner warmth.
This is a fine album, but one best sampled at half length. The wonderful equilibrium of democracy that characterised Trio Libero has been channelled into something more constrained. That’s no fault of Aarset’s. He catches the mood and plays with just the right degree of deferential creativity. But where Trio Libero and Aarset’s Dream Logic are both exceptional albums, Surrounded by Sea is merely very, very good.
Andy Sheppard tenor and soprano saxophones; Eivind Aarset electric guitar; Michel Benita double bass; Sebastian Rochford drums.
Buy Surrounded by Sea direct from ECM.