Jazz: All a-fumble with English buttons

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TEN YEARS ago, saxophonists Courtney Pine and Andy Sheppard were battling it out head to head in the symbolic ring forged from the heat of that curious historical moment - the Eighties jazz revival. It was a time when no lager ad was complete without a tootling tenor sax on the soundtrack; when their Island albums sold in hundreds of thousands, and a brave new dawn for British jazz looked assured. So what happened?

Well, the dawn may have been put on hold, along with the Island contracts, but both men are playing better than ever. While Pine has followed his entertainer's inclinations into hip-hop and jungle, Sheppard has perfected his particular mix of African and English melodic modes to the point where he now possesses one of the most distinctive saxophone voices in the world.

On soprano sax, Sheppard has a fragile tone, full of questing, choirboy optimism, while on tenor sax he favours more worldly smooches and slow burns, smearing notes into elongated sighs whose passion, while under control, constantly threatens to brim over into ecstatic excess. Of course, being emblematically English, it never quite unbuttons itself for the full Monty, but that is part of the charm.

In order to compose the tunes for his new album, Learning to Wave, which this home-town gig launched, Sheppard taught himself to play the guitar, then selected new musicians to play the repertoire. The result is a more unapologetically emotional musical discourse than ever, tending towards a Celtic-fringed form of pastoral.

Over two long sets, Sheppard poured his heart out through his horn, especially on the ballads. And the audience? They cried. And then they cried for more.

`Learning to Wave' is on Provocateur Records

Phil Johnson