Andy Sheppard Quartet

Live Review | NCEM, York | Review by Liam Wilkinson

Fresh from their appearance at this year’s London Jazz Festival, the Andy Sheppard Quartet delivered two awe-inspiring candlelit sets, this evening, at York’s National Centre for Early Music.  It was a welcome return to York by Sheppard, one of Britain’s most treasured saxophonists who, this year, celebrated his sixtieth birthday.

With the release of their next album imminent, this formidable quartet of ambitious musicians unfurled some rather seductive new soundscapes that allowed for plenty of soaring improvisations, leaving the entire audience eager to get their hands on the yet-to-be-released album.  The Norwegian guitarist Eivind Aarset fed his exploratory electric chords and notes into a bank of gadgets in order to evoke some enthralling scenery whilst renowned Algerian bassist Michel Benita and Scottish drummer Seb Rochford traversed a range of inventive rhythms.  And whilst Andy Sheppard paused regularly over his sax to look on in genuine wonder and admiration as his fellow musicians stirred their brew, his own searching improvisations and thoughtful seasonings made for a notably nourishing feast.

Highlights from the Quartet’s first set included the sublime “With Every Flower That Falls”, a constantly lifting piece which benefitted from Sheppard’s effervescent flights of fancy, as well as the cascading “All Becomes Again”, an exuberant torrent of wild rhythms and searching melodies built on Benita’s beautifully emotive bass introduction.  The set culminated in a new composition based on the song of a bird heard in Sheppard’s garden near Lisbon, Portugal.  Beginning with the call and response phrases of Andy and Eivind, this exquisite meditation on nature welcomed some infectious tropical rhythms from Seb’s understated yet strikingly beguiling drums.

After a brief interval, the Quartet returned to the stage for an uninterrupted performance of “They Came from the North” and “Pop”, two new compositions from their forthcoming album which allowed for some astonishing sonic experiments.  Whilst much of the first set, though consistently inventive and energetic, had remained relatively restrained, the last half of tonight’s concert offered Sheppard’s band the chance to flex their progressive muscles, especially during a moment of thrillingly abstract improvisations during which each musician spilled over the edges of their instruments to mine new and alluring sounds before returning to the safe-haven of Sheppard’s reedy melody and the tranquil pools of Aarset’s guitar chords.  After whipping us up into a frenzy, the Quartet sent its appreciative audience home with a wonderfully serene reading of Lennon/McCartney’s “And I Love Her”, a familiar and beloved melody that tied the bow on a truly satisfying evening of exploratory jazz.