Surrounded by Sea, Andy Sheppard’s third ECM album, is a strongly atmospheric recording, and one whose associative title seems especially apt. As the saxophonist observes, the sea in question is mostly calm, but storms and squalls can arise in a moment. British Islanders are fine-tuned to such sudden fluctuations: “Coming from England, I’ve grown up with the physical awareness of being surrounded by sea.”
The album adds Norwegian guitarist Eivind Aarset to the line-up of Sheppard’s widely acclaimed Trio Libero (refer to the 2011 recording of the same name, ECM 2252), making a new quartet with a different emphasis. “I see the quartet as the next step on from Trio Libero. Libero started out as an improvising trio. A lot of the material was drawn from our improvisation and turned into tunes. With this new album I wanted to retain the same musicality but move things in a new direction with the addition of harmony and subtle grooves.”
With Sheppard’s compositions and direction to the fore, and Aarset’s ambient drones and washes of sound integrated as quasi-orchestral elements, priorities have shifted. The addition of a fourth player has, paradoxically, opened up more space in the music. Eivind’s textural soundscapes, his subtly layered guitar and electronics, seem to give Sheppard more room to move as well as a harmonic foundation to play off.
Threaded in between Sheppard’s strong new piece is an extended and compelling meditation upon a Gaelic traditional song, “Aoidh, Na Dean Cadal Idir” (Aiodh, Don’t Sleep At All). It’s a piece associated in recent years with Hebridean folk singer Julie Fowlis, from whom Sheppard learned it.
“I was in the process of developing a project with Julie which never came to fruition. To illustrate how I wanted to ‘dress’ her music I took her a cappella version of ‘Aoidh’ and Michel, Eivind and I recorded separately our parts around her beautiful voice. This in fact gave me the initial idea of forming a band with this line-up. When we recorded the tune as a quartet the music seemed to just come into the room – [producer] Manfred [Eicher] waved his arms to make us continue playing and the result was an extended version – he then suggested we could divide the tune up and weave it through the record. It seems only fitting that the song that brought this line-up together is now a recurrent theme through the album. Also I remember, from talking with Julie, that in the Gaelic tradition when someone teaches you a song it's your responsibility to pass it on ...”
The other non-original in the programme is Elvis Costello’s “I Want To Vanish”. “Michel Benita introduced me to this song and I fell in love with it.
I also recorded and toured with Elvis some years ago in John Harle's Terror and Magnificence project.”
Throughout the album Sheppard plays some of his most lyrical saxophone, both on his own pieces and on the tunes contributed by Michel Benita and Seb Rochford. The rapport between bassist and drummer, demonstrated on Trio Libero, is evident throughout Surrounded by Sea.
The album concludes with a dedication to Ornette Coleman whose free spirit and expressive originality are a permanent reference. “When I composed and whenever I play ‘Looking for Ornette’ it's exactly what I'm trying to do…”
Surrounded by Sea was recorded in August and September 2014 in the responsive natural acoustics of Lugano’s Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI.