Saxophonist and composer Andy Sheppard has a distinctive, resonant sound that can move from passionate to icy. On his latest, Romaria, it is easiest to hear his chillier side as his quartet (Eivind Aarset on guitar and electronics, Michel Benita on bass, and drummer Sebastian Rochford) creates evocative but antiseptic atmospheres around his signature voice.
Romaria follows up on the band’s Surrounded by the Sea from 2015, and that title alone gives a sense of the yearning and open-landscape sound at which this band excels. “And a Day…”, the opener, is pure fog on the horizon, with Sheppard playing low and slow like a schooner heading into a Scandinavian port. Of course this is an ECM recording (and produced by ECM’s Manfred Eicher) and Aarset, a Norwegian, is the recording’s dominant colorist, so the northern European vibe is more than a mere suggestion. “They Came from the North” is an actual Sheppard composition here, and it is a haunting collection of sounds: keening long tones, a double-time drum pattern, droning bass, and Sheppard on soprano saxophone. While the tune moves into some harmonic motion in the middle, it remains ominous and echoing with mystery.
But even when the band is playing with more jump, this is the vibe. “Thirteen” places Rochford out front, playing a fast swing pattern on this ride cymbal as Sheppard plays soprano again, with bass and guitar drifting in and out of the atmosphere in washes of sound. Aarset uses a tone here that is quiet but slightly distorted—an orchestral touch that makes the tune sound both distant and large.
In some cases, the band achieves a more organic or traditional sound. “With Every Flower that Falls” favors a cleaner guitar sound and harmonies that would not be out of place in a classic jazz tune, with Benita filling holes with his beautifully recorded acoustic bass sound. “Pop” features a dry brushes-on-snare pattern with snap to it, setting up—sure—a somewhat poppier melody. But it is still blue and yearning, with Aaset playing a nice weave of sound around the tenor sax melody. By its mid-point, however, Aarset finds himself playing an electronically enhanced wash that could be on almost any other tune here.
Those tunes, to most ears I think, will sound too much the same to make this a program that holds long interest. “All Becomes Again” features a nice melody, but the band doesn’t play it distinctly until several minutes in, and it is stated with a delicacy of tone and attack that makes it easy to miss. The closing track, “Forever”, is a very slow lament. Even the title track, written by Brazilian singer-songwriter Renato Teixeira, proceeds with a tender slowness. Close listening, of course, reveals the unique qualities of most of these compositions—”Romaria”, for example, has a romantic and highly vocal melody that plainly carries a lyric and benefits from gentle but backbeat-aware drumming—but the sonic textures across most performances have a gauzy similarity.
Familiarity with Andy Sheppard’s playing (for example, with Carla Bley) makes it clear that he is a versatile and witty musician. Romaria is just a single one of Sheppard’s moods, and the band he works with here specializes in airy beauty. It is a beautiful recording, to be sure. But it is beauty of one kind, a cirrus cloud in the sky, a floating mood of temperance, a shiver of sensation but never much more.