surrounded by seaBeautifully lyrical, this saxophonist's release inserts ambient mood pieces between delicate melodies – or is it the other way around?

Label: ECM
Time: 12 tracks / 53mins

Any who took up our hint and bought Sheppard's work on the eponymous Trio Libero should enjoy this one too. Again, he combines tone poems with lyrical melodies.

Retaining the Trio's rhythm section of Michel Benita on double bass and Sebastian Rochford (Polar Bear, Acoustic Ladyland) on drums, he completes the new band with Norwegian Eivind Aarset on guitar – although his work is so delicate and fluid that you'd be forgiven for thinking it is an occasional wash of keyboards.

The songs are strung along the thread of the Gaelic song "Aoidh, Na Dean Cadl Idir" (Aoidh, Don't Sleep at all"). At one point Sheppard was working on an aborted project with Hebridean folk singer Julie Fowlis. To illustrate how his band would blend with her voice, they dressed an à capella version of this traditional work with their sound. When they recorded this album version, producer Manfred Eicher made them to keep playing for some twenty minutes and suggested inserting sections of the extended work across the album.

It makes me wonder why the Fowlis project failed, as the quartet's approach is unobtrusive and Sheppard's lovely tone to his tenor and soprano saxes continues to be highly sensitive to the mood of a song.

This is certainly the case with Elvis Costello's "I Want to Vanish," which highlights the writer's way with a good tune. Sheppard plays many of the notes with an almost-staccato phrasing that only emphasises the smoothness of his sonorous held notes. It is a textbook example of how controlled playing can release the emotion in a tune, rather than constrict it.

This is one of several highly melodic pieces, normally under six minutes, which are dotted along the string of the Scottish thread like pearls. The best are Sheppard's own compositions, including "Medication," built on a simple ascending bass line, "The Impossibility of Silence" and "Looking for Ornette." Filling in the gaps are several more impressionistic tone poems (which may be a bit too noodly for some).

It all begins with a gently relentless bolero-like rhythm from Benita and Rochford on "Tipping Point," basic enough for Sheppard to improvise freely around. That simplicity seems to be the key. The themes are so uncomplicated that they give the musicians ample room to make things as interesting as they want, which they do as an organic and intuitive unit.

Drummer Rochford, already a popular musician by the time of Trio Libero, seems to have matured further, feeling even more at home with drumming on such wispy pieces without standing out for the wrong reasons. It is his "They Aren't Perfect and Neither Am I" where Aarset comes more to the fore, his springy notes adding to the percussive feel.

For me, Trio Libero just has the edge, possibly because Surrounded by Sea is as fluid as the title suggests and its tide drifts a little too freely towards the end, but maybe because the recent disc was less of a lovely surprise. Both are fine albums, and recommended for lovers of smooth instrumental jazz with a blend of lyricism and dreamy space.


Derek Walker

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