Romaria is the latest chapter in a musical story that began with saxophonist Andy Sheppard’s free-flowing Trio Libero recording with bassist Michel Benita and drummer Sebastian Rochford back in 2011. The creative understanding between the three highly-individual protagonists was unmissable. For the subsequent album Surrounded by Sea, recorded in 2014, Eivind Aarset was added on guitar and electronics, bringing the group to quartet size and broadening its work method. As Sheppard explained to UK website Jazz Views, “I wanted to take what I was doing with Trio Libero and add the harmonies that I can hear in my head when playing with just bass and drums. Eivind is an amazing ‘orchestral’ voice with exquisite taste – the perfect choice for this role.” In an interview with Jazzwise magazine, Sheppard went further: “The sound-world that I have with this quartet is my dream band.” US magazine Jazz Times called the quartet’s music “impressionistic yet suffused with piercing emotional clarity,” a description also applicable for Romaria.
In this new programme of compositions by Andy Sheppard (plus the title track by Brazilian singer-songwriter Renato Teixeira) the drones and washes of Eivind Aarset’s guitar and electronics once again help to establish a climate in which improvisation can take place. There’s a highly atmospheric, ambient drift to the music which Sheppard clearly finds liberating, as do Michel Benita and Seb Rochford, free to move in and out of conventional rhythm section roles and to make impassioned statements of their own. And there is also drive: rubato and propulsive elements can co-exist and overlap in Sheppard’s musical universe, see for instance “Thirteen,” “They Came From The North” and “All Becomes Again”, all distinguished by dynamic interaction.
“I wanted to continue the atmosphere of Surrounded by Sea,” says Andy Sheppard, “and write music which would bring out the wonderful musicality of Eivind, Seb and Michel and also make the core a little more robust, with more of an emphasis on groove and energy than the last album.”
The opening and closing tracks were originally two versions of a slowly-unfolding ballad entitled “Forever and a Day”, both featuring gentle saxophone by the leader and melodic bass from Michel Benita against minimalistic drums and Aarset’s halo of sounds: “Manfred’s inspired idea of using both takes to open and close the session made me retitle the music accordingly.”
“With Every Flower That Falls” belongs to a suite of music that Sheppard was commissioned to write as a “live score” to accompany a screening of Fritz Lang’s prophetic science-fiction classic Metropolis at the Bristol International Jazz Festival. (At the festival it was performed with a ten piece ensemble with Sheppard, Aarset and Michele Rabbia among the soloists).
Title track “Romaria” was recommended to Andy Sheppard by his wife Sara: “She suggested I explore it, and played me the wonderful version by Ellis Regina, which of course I fell in love with immediately. For me, it also ties in with our recent relocation to Portugal, land of sunshine and saudades, two things that I hope the listener will find on this recording…”
Andy Sheppard’s first leader date for ECM was the 2008 recording Movements In Colour (where Eivind Aarset was one of the featured guitarists). In addition to the aforementioned Trio Libero album Sheppard can also be heard with Carla Bley and Steve Swallow on Trios (recorded 2012) and Andando el Tiempo (2015) and on ten of Carla Bley’s albums on the ECM distributed WATT label, beginning with Fleur Carnivore in 1988. Sheppard has written music for ensembles of every size including his Saxophone Massive project with up to 200 players, and been featured as soloist with great jazz composers and arrangers including George Russell and Gil Evans.
Andy Sheppard and Michel Benita have been crossing paths since the 1980s. In 2008 Sheppard, Benita and Sebastian Rochford came together in a project at the Coutances Jazz Festival in northern France. It was here that Sheppard first glimpsed the potential of this particular musical combination.
Seb Rochford, whose interest in jazz was first sparked by witnessing an Andy Sheppard concert in Aberdeen, has meanwhile made his own distinctive contributions to the genre, with his bands including Polar Bear. Rochford’s resumé has embraced work with everyone from Brian Eno to Herbie Hancock, from Patti Smith to Matana Roberts.
Each quartet member is also a bandleader in his own right, and Michel Benita, French bassist born in Algiers, recorded the album River Silver with his Ethics band (featuring Eivind Aarset, Matthieu Michel, and koto player Mieko Miyazaki) for ECM in 2015. Benita has played with numerous jazz musicians including Dewey Redman, Archie Shepp, Lee Konitz, Kenny Wheeler, Joe Lovano, Steve Kuhn, Michel Portal and many more.
Eivind Aarset’s ECM album Dream Logic was released in 2012. It was followed by Atmosphères with an improvising quartet with Tigran Hamasyan, Arve Henriksen and Jan Bang. Other ECM appearances include Nils Petter Molvӕr’s influential Khmer and Solid Ether, Small Labyrinths with Marilyn Mazur’s Future Song, Arild Andersen’s Electra, John Hassell’s Last Night The Moon Came…, Ketil Bjørnstad’s La Notte, and Food’s Mercurial Balm.
Romaria was recorded at Lugano’s Auditorio Stelio Molo in April 2017 and produced by Manfred Eicher.