JAZZ / Taste, not flavour: Phil Johnson reviews Andy Sheppard's Big Co-Motion at the Colston

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The Independent Online
Even the municipal stewards minding the doors were tapping their feet. Whatever it is he's got, Andy Sheppard certainly manages to communicate it in a way that eludes most jazz artists. This is, one recalls, a man who has battled toe to toe with the avant-garde of both Europe and America, yet has also found the time to compose a theme tune for Torvill and Dean.

Sheppard has also contrived to remain endearingly English - a kind of jazz version of Paul McCartney - singing through his soprano sax like the choirboy he once was to create pure, fragile lines of Christmas-carol-like beauty, nearer in spirit to the cathedral than to John Coltrane.

The same talent for light and airy music is evident in his best compositions, where what could be trite themes are rescued from bathos by a skilful doubling and trebling of the melody, which can make a simple song assume the harmonic weight of George Russell or Carla Bley, his most obvious influences. The first half of the concert flew by in a flurry of sensuous phrases, with the small group, In Co-Motion, accompanied by the rasping trombone of star New Yorker Gary Valente before the rest of the 10-piece Big Co-Motion joined them for the remainder of the evening. Going in to the break, Sheppard threatened to 'get funky' on his return, but the first half had been so deliciously tuneful that getting seriously cosy looked a more likely proposition.

The funk, such as it was, came mainly from Valente. Looking a little like a heavy from Goodfellas, he puts his considerable weight behind each phrase so that you feel that, were he to somehow get confused and suck rather than blow, the whole of the audience would disappear into his horn.

The problem with the performance was that there was simply too much of it. Sheppard has composed so much material recently that he is releasing two new albums in quick succession, and he seemed to want to play it all at length. The longer the band played, the more one was tempted to revise previous opinions so that by the end (and following the interminable drum solo) you were ready to curse his McCartney-ish niceness, as well as the unrelenting tastefulness of the music. And however beautifully Sheppard himself plays, the experience can still remain curiously uninvolving: he rarely evokes a strong emotional response. If you end up crying at a Sheppard gig, you have probably lost your wallet.

Such doubts aside, and given that this was truly a game of two halves played before a fiercely partisan home-town crowd, the show confirmed that Sheppard is the only member of the Eighties jazz revival to have shown real development as both a composer and a bandleader. Perhaps he just needs an occasional John Lennon to give a twist of authentic nastiness to his - for jazz - unusually well-adjusted muse.