Album Remarks & Appraisals:
Ambient drones and electronic textures provide the backdrop for the musicians to explore new compositions and open improvisations.
Personnel: Andy Sheppard (soprano saxophone, tenor saxophone); Eivind Aarset (guitar); Michel Benita (double bass); Sebastian "Seb" Rochford (drums).
Recording information: Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI, Lugano (08/2014).
Photographer: Caterina di Perri.
Though Andy Sheppard has a long relationship with ECM via his work in Carla Bley's various bands, Surrounded by Sea marks only his third date as a leader for the label. On this album, Sheppard once again employs double bassist Michel Benita and drummer Sebastian Rochford from 2012's Trio Libero, and adds guitarist/electronicist Eivind Aarset, who played on the saxophonist's ECM debut, Movements in Colour, in 2009. The guitarist, who almost never plays conventionally, provides the additional atmospheric element Sheppard sought to express in these tunes. The album's centerpiece is a reading of the Gaelic "Aoid, Na Dean Cadal Idir." It was initially intended to be part of a collaborative album with Hebridean folk singer Julie Fowlis, but the project never came to fruition. In the studio, producer Manfred Eicher encouraged the quartet to continue playing for 20 minutes. It has been edited down into three parts that act as a suite to anchor the other compositions. Sheppard takes the melody on his soprano and improvises on its theme, while Rochford's slippery brush and stickwork paint the time in rubato fashion. Aarset's ambient washes color the spaces and backdrop as Benita's ostinato phrasing holds the center. Strategically placed between nine other airy, mostly languid compositions, it creates the notion of a cyclical, even familiar return. "Tipping Point," with its eerie, hesitant, out-of-the-fog lyricism, gradually builds in tension -- Rochford's snare and cymbal work is precise, crystalline -- winding around Benita as Aarset's sonics accent Sheppard's suggestive phrasing. But there is no release; it is altogether abandoned on the next track, Elvis Costello's ballad "I Want to Vanish," which offers delightful interplay between Sheppard and Benita. The set's most haunting tune is "Medication." Rochford's trance-like brushwork draws the listener toward Sheppard's thematic exposition while the guitarist hovers and the bassist builds the bridge between them all. On "I See Your Eyes Before Me," Aarset's guitar is at its most insistent. His shard-like chords and angular single-string flourishes add momentum to the interaction between Sheppard and Benita. "Looking for Ornette" was inspired by the alto pioneer's reliance on short, repetitive lines to unveil rhythmic, tonal, and textural notions within them. Sheppard's own spin is gentler, slower, rounder. Surrounded by Sea invites the listener into an intimate, mysterious sound world. Sheppard's band plays with discipline and restraint. Through extremely close listening, the players explore the mystery of melody -- both plainly stated and implied -- and its various thematic trails in inspired if laid-back dialogue. ~ Thom Jurek
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