Live review: Andy Sheppard The Albert Inn, Bristol

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The Independent Culture
Perhaps because a piano was too large to fit comfortably into the confines of a lager ad, saxophonists were the principal beneficiaries of the Eighties jazz revival. Sheppard, like Courtney Pine, Steve Williamson and Tommy Smith, was one of the few to emerge from the Zeitgeist with both a hot reputation and a record contract. Entering a national competition (sponsored by Schlitz) whose final was televised, Sheppard came in second but impressed sufficiently to get a deal with Island and a kick-start to a career that has taken him into most of the available niches ever since: guest star with big American name (Carla Bley); classical crossover (with John Harle); free improvisation (with fellow Bristolian Keith Tippett); support to pop act (John Martyn); and British Council tours to far-flung outposts (Mongolia). If, as a consequence, Sheppard has sometimes seemed as if he was keeping unlikely company, he has nevertheless continued heroically to demonstrate his prodigious talent even when the context looked like defeating him.

Happily, his new quartet is perhaps his most comfortable context yet. Accompanied by his regular partner Steve Lodder on piano, with Dudley Phillips on double-bass, and the wonder drummer Mark Mondesir, Sheppard has at last made a group in his own image: an eclectic, compulsively tuneful and mainly acoustic band with whom his most abiding virtues are able to flourish. As a soloist, Sheppard excels in short, intense, bursts, where his tight phrasing and unfailingly musical sound create a mixture of the best elements of the American and European traditions. He can, if necessary, blow up a storm, but the tone of his horn is usually pitched at a mellifluous angle where the effects are thoughtful and hard-won rather than pulverisingly obvious. In one number, a careful contrast between a soft, South African lullaby and intersecting blasts of free jazz mayhem demonstrated the book- ends of his style most effectively.

Playing before a packed audience at his local pub (the Albert Inn), for a television series to be hosted by Miles Kington, the performance was relayed on a monitor to the pub's lounge for the benefit of the crowd. Even in the quietest moments of a bass solo, those there for the lager alone remained silent. Though the saxophone may now have nothing to sell but itself, Sheppard's playing still casts a powerful spell n

Andy Sheppard plays Ronnie Scott's, W1 to Sat (0171-439 0747), moving to Ronnie Scott's, Birmingham, 22-25 Jan (0121-643 4525). His and Steve Lodder's new album, `Moving Image', is available on Verve