a column by
“Europe is a continent of energetic mongrels.” In 1935, when British historian H. A. L. Fisher was writing, most of Europe did not agree and racial purity, which Fisher rightly considered a myth, was being enforced across the continent with mounting violence. It was perhaps easier to accept non-pedigree status when the North Sea and English Channel provided a natural cordon sanitaire. The British Isles had not been successfully invaded since 1066 and the American cultural “invasion,” which had begun with the exportation of jazz after the First World War, was condescendingly welcomed as a prodigal’s payback, part of the Anglo-Saxon orbit. Europe was a different matter, though: unpredictable, garlicky, prone to rushes of enthusiasm and obscure national hatreds, vulnerable to ideology. Relations had never been warm and are still only affectedly so. European ‘union’ still sounds like an oxymoron, though only real morons want to see a return to the old 19th century nationalisms.
Once one gets into the detail, though, this broad summary starts to reveal some curious ironies. The “special relationship” didn’t mitigate a ridiculous quota system whereby American jazz musicians could only visit Britain according to a crude and uneven quid pro quo, a situation which unhappily turned Ornette Coleman into a classical composer. By the same token, a whole generation of British improvisers liked to prop up bars and complain that they were doing ten times more gigs “on the continent” than at home, a perception that tended to ignore questions of scale though it did gather some inverse validity from the recognition that Belgian, French, Italian and Portuguese musicians all had the opposite problem – back then, at least – but were at least able to sustain a career of sorts at home.
The situation changed with the coming down of the Berlin Wall and the retreat of the Soviet empire. Europe as an entity started to make more sense, even if its fiscal arrangements did not. Inevitably, the oxymorons reappeared. We were asked to understand that “Europe” had overtaken America in terms of creativity. Not only had European labels kept the jazz flame alight while corporate American drowsed, but now European musicians were forging ahead in terms of innovation and stylistic adventure, sometimes on the basis of cheerfully balkanized “scenes” – Stockholm! Stuttgart!! Milan!!! – but just as often in terms of a generalized Europeanism. “European jazz” was the new locomotive of change.
A number of factors made this possible, or gave this illusion an air of reality. The consolidation of compact discs as the dominant carrier coincided with the sudden widening – doubling! – of Europe as a cultural entity. Cheap air travel wasn’t far away, though as we’ll see that constitutes a double-edged sword. The rise of the internet reinforced a sense of connectedness and, in Europe, of creative pro-activity that had never been sustainable before. And there was another factor, specific, personal and iconic, but powerful player in the shaping of a new hegemony.
By 1989, ECM Records had already been around for twenty years – the fortieth anniversary later this year perhaps requires fuller treatment nearer the time – and had in that time shaped a new aesthetic that had less to do with “European” or “American” styles or players – it successfully blended both – than with a confident and defiant understanding of the jazz record as a work of art in itself rather than as mere entertainment or as a pragmatic documentation, a gig souvenir for the fans.
Like the French Revolution, hundreds of years before, it was far too soon to tell in 1989, and far too soon to tell now, how much ECM changed the rules of the jazz game, but everyone sensed that the label had. Arguments about the “ECM sound,” about its cultural/continental identity, its descent – as Richard Williams has recently argued – from the harmonically stilled, emotionally suspended aesthetic of Kind of Blue are all pretty much by-the-bye for the moment. Attempts to present it as Manfred Eicher’s obsessive personal fief – as if he were Mad King Ludwig: hyper-aesthetic, capricious, a builder of follies – completely miss the aesthetic impartiality of the catalogue. Could it be more various? Isn’t the only unifying thread a commitment to excellence on ever parameter? Why do we still get bogged down in these discussions, rather than absorbing the music and considering the narratives and creative trajectories of individual “ECM artists”?
Perhaps no single musician better illustrates the issues surrounding the current European scene than British saxophonist Andy Sheppard, but it’s significant that when we speak the discussion divides neatly into highly practical stuff about getting around Europe and Sheppard’s experiences as one of ECM’s latest signings. In point of fact, he’s been in the label’s orbit for some time, appearing on WATT with Carla Bley and Steve Swallow. Eicher had apparently been watching him for some time, but without specific approach, a tactic that has led some observers to an alternative image of the ECM boss as a reclusive Howard Hughes-like figure, listening from the shadows, emerging on impulse of whim. Unlike Hughes, who wouldn’t have recognized the apposite moment if it bit him, Eicher knows exactly when to wait and when to act. He also works on his own time scale, which sometimes seems geologically slow to those who work for him.
Recording in France put Sheppard back in a setting he knew from his time there as a younger musician, when he did an infantry stint with provocateurs Urban Sax, and a tour of duty with Gil Evans; Sheppard also worked with the late George Russell, and when you put that together with the close relationship to Carla Bley, it looks as though he’s touched most of the bases as far as the major composer/arrangers are concerned. Born in heartland Britain – it doesn’t come any more heartland or folkloric than Wiltshire – Sheppard was turned on to saxophone by hearing John Coltrane, discovered his vocation and was soon touted, along with Courtney Pine, Steve Williamson and Phillip Bent (though the only white face in that company), as one of the bright new hopes of British jazz. Uniquely, though, and positively as it has turned out, his creative orientation was destined to be European rather than British. The final track on Movements in Colour is called “International Blue,” and even if that is a reference to Yves Klein’s industrial-romantic “International Klein Blue,” it is still a canny description of Sheppard’s own practice, which involves a clever balancing of post-Coltrane harmonics with native elements and a pan-European sensibility that makes him very different to characterize stylistically. If Klein’s IKB was a catch-all modernist hue, Sheppard’s work has been deftly and quirkily inflected. It’s perhaps odd that an artist propelled into recording by winning a competition, snapped up by the savvy but doomed Antilles imprint, should have had such a patchy recording career since.
He was last heard a few years back on Colin Towns’ Provocateur label, an imprint which has since reverted to home imprint for Towns’ own music. The final record of that deal, Music For A New Crossing, was a crossover project with piper Kathryn Tickell. Before that were the two-handers P.S. and Nocturnal Tourist with Parricelli. One has to go back to 1999 to find a Sheppard disc with full group. Dancing Man and Woman had him working with Bhamra for the first time on record, but there in conjunction with percussionist Paul Clarvis (Shalda Sahai and Clarvis also played tabla on 1998’s Learning to Wave), and in a group that centered heavily on keyboards. That has been thrown overboard on Movements in Colour. “I think the thing about guitar is that it doesn’t date in the way keyboard sounds do. Synth patches start to sound very familiar and tired very quickly, but even Hendrix still sounds fresh forty years on. When writing the music I had thought about situations where a steel-strung acoustic was layered underneath electric guitar, but actually, for all its very ‘produced’ sound, ECM doesn’t work that way, or rather Manfred Eicher doesn’t. You get the musicians, you get the music, you play a couple of takes of each, you pick the best of them and he puts them in the most effective order on the record. I’d have put that third track [“Nave Nave Moe”] first, but he wanted it put there.” There’s probably no better or simpler illustration of Eicher’s genius than in that ostensibly simple decision. While there is nothing remotely tentative about the long opening “La Tristesse du Roi,” it is only with the third track that the subtle group interplay of Movements in Colour comes into focus.
Even so, not even every positive review seemed to take account of the distance he has travelled creatively. He pretty much got the theme-and-solo thing out of his system while working for George Russell and other leaders, proving he could do it but also staking out an obvious interest in the kind of collective group situation that made Songs With Legs, a trio with Bley and Swallow, such an interesting record. Talking to Sheppard, though, one is immediately aware of a certain gap between critical generalization and the day-to-day exigencies of a working musician’s live. He’s refreshingly straightforward about the practicalities of it all, preferring discussion of travel arrangements to any sort of abstract debate about the existence or otherwise of a new “European” jazz. A man who plays with Rita Marcotulli and Michel Benita doesn’t need to make such a case. It is simply an aspect of his work diary, but how that diary functions in practical aspects is of pressing interest. “Time was, it was cheaper to fly to New York from London than to fly to Vienna. That was before low-cost airlines came along, but they haven’t quite got it either. All the airlines seem to regard musicians as a kind of nuisance or inconvenience.” In other words, it may be cheaper now, but it works out more expensive if you arrive in Prague or Dusseldorf without your horns or with a hole in your double bass.
Sheppard is calmly aware of the pressures exerted on what’s left of a private life. He’s been married a couple of times and has kids, who once came on tour with him, promoters having been persuaded that they’d be looked after by an (imaginary) au pair. “It’s all very romantic, having kids sleeping under the piano, but it brings pressures as well.” For a period, and like many of his generation – born 1957 – his orientation was on America rather than Europe. Two Blue Note albums – Rhythm Method and Delivery Suite – seem to encapsulate aspects of that period and the changes it brought. As Tommy Smith and others were to learn, the energy of the 1980s “British jazz boom” didn’t carry over the Atlantic. “It was bizarre, that period, suddenly being written about as if jazz was the big new thing. The situation is very different now. In Britain, you have older audiences, even if they’re listening to very young bands. In Italy – admittedly, the scene there is a bit of mystery – the audiences are very much younger. It moves around. Once, all the American émigrés were in Paris, then it was Copenhagen, and now there isn’t that much in Paris, just a few small clubs. Whatever anyone says, there is still more, and more of a very high standard, in New York than anywhere else on the planet. I played at Birdland a while back, and felt like Frank Sinatra...
I’ve always taken the gig, which puts pressures on your life, especially when you have children. But they get to realize that when you have a jazz musician for a father, if he doesn’t take the gig, there’s no yum-yum on the table.” Five minutes in Sheppard’s company and it’s clear that for all his cosmopolitanism, he has a strong measure of classic British pragmatism about him. Anyone who learned their basic history from H. A. L. Fisher – and most history students of my generation did – will recognize that history doesn’t move according to big abstract principles, or what Fisher identified in the introduction to his A History of Europe as “a plot, a rhythm, a predetermined pattern,” but according to local contingencies, unforeseen changes and pure chance. Sheppard is an estimable example of an artist who accepts the moment when it comes along – like the call from Manfred Eicher eventually came along – without the paranoia of thinking that it belongs to any grand pattern. Like every creatively successful musician, he has had to be an improviser in life as well as on the stand. His “rhythm method” is increasingly distinctive, though again whether “European,” pan-European or some other “world”-ly construction isn’t yet clear. Even forty years after Miles incorporated the sound, tabla is still a usefully ambiguous signifier in a jazz context. Twinned guitars might suggest a similar provenance, or Ornette’s electric groups, or it could suggest the light-and-dark juxtapositions of the Kinks. Just as Andy Sheppard accepts offers from whatever corner they come, he takes his musical influences from the widest possible spectrum. If it’s mongrel music, or energetic mongrel music, its energies are confidently appropriated and often held in reserve. If John Coltrane was Sheppard’s starting point, Jan Garbarek became his greatest living model and Garbarek understands that there’s often an inverse relationship between complexity and the number of notes you play, rejecting the idea that he has become ‘simpler’ as the years have gone by. Sheppard likewise; gone are the torrential flurries of sound, in favor of a group dynamic that makes tiny phrases and single notes convey substantial information and considerable emotional freight. Like any energetic mongrel, he covers the ground and won’t let go when he gets his teeth into something. But there’s a quieter confidence as well now, a willingness to lay back and listen. In the babble/Babel of “national scenes” and multifarious styles, Andy Sheppard has won the confidence to be and sound like no one but himself. That’s neither European, nor American, Old World or New: that’s simply a token of artistic maturity.