Review: Andy Sheppard/Loose Tubes




Fred Grand sees saxophonist Sheppard with Italian pianist Rita Marcotulli and Loose Tubes with the old magic and a bunch of new charts

Headlining the Gateshead jazz festival’s closing night on 12 April was a double-bill that promised to take festival-goers back in time to the British jazz boom of the 80s. Of course Andy Sheppard has covered lots of musical ground since then, earning international exposure via his work with Carla Bley and an ongoing association with ECM Records. The same could also be said of many of the lynchpins of groundbreaking big band Loose Tubes, at least half of whom have subsequently made their mark on the European stage with successful solo careers. As it happened the two sets could hardly have been more contrasting, and whether by accident or design the festival programmers managed to balance reverent nostalgia with the here and now of today’s contemporary mainstream.

Sheppard is a familiar figure on the south bank of the Tyne. His duet with Northumbrian piper Kathryn Tickell provided the soundtrack for the opening of the Millennium Bridge, and for Sage Gateshead's fifth birthday in 2009 he composed a specially commissioned and somewhat conceptual performance piece, Five Sided Dream. This time he came with the great Italian pianist Rita Marcotulli, whose recent album La Strada Invisibile has hogged my home playlist of late. Marcotulli’s association with Sheppard stretches back many years, and they’ve built a strong musical rapport both on stage and in the studio with memorable albums like Koine (2003) and On The Edge Of A Delicate Moment (2007). Embodying all that is great about the European jazz tradition, Marcotulli is a superb technician with an exquisite touch and a seemingly fathomless reservoir of harmonic and melodic options.

Their compelling set began with the delicate African-tinged G Continuo, Marcotulli reaching under the hood of the piano to dampen the strings and set up a mesmerising pulse for Sheppard’s chirpy soprano flights. Subtle electronic delay brought an almost wraithlike presence to her shimmering chords on Sheppard’s Les Mains D’Alice, but it was perhaps the energetic call-and-response tail-chase of the next improvised piece which really underscored the duo’s great musical chemistry. Tending to avoid the high end of the piano, Marcotulli favours a driving left hand and stays within the piano’s middle-range, frequently recalling Jarrett’s less florid output of the mid-70s. Lullaby For Igor, written for Sheppard’s young son, playfully juxtaposed childlike repetition with violent tantrums, and its fitful turns were about as heated as this intricate and slightly bashful music would get. At just under 50 minutes the set made a huge impact despite its relative brevity, and along with the spell-binding late night performance by The Necks on Saturday it was the clear highlight of my 2015 festival. 

******

LOOSE TUBES are now as much of an institution as the jazz establishment that they once rudely cocked an irreverent collective snook at. I only saw them once in the late 80s, an indication of my relative youth, but memories of that night remain indelibly etched in my mind. In a witty pre-concert talk with Kevin LeGendre, Messrs Argüelles, Bates, Parker and Slater repeatedly referred to the recently rediscovered sense of family within the ensemble, and to a man they were each keen to stress that the reunion had never been intended as a nostalgia trip. Django Bates’s description of how this precociously gifted crop of young talents broke free of Graham Collier’s rehearsal band offered a rather more serious reminder of just what an exciting and game-changing era the 80s had been for jazz in the UK, but when they shocked the world last year by announcing plans for a reunion I probably wasn’t alone in questioning the wisdom of decision - how could it ever be the same? Glowing reviews of their Cheltenham set and subsequent residence at Ronnie’s seemed to confirm that even after a 24-year hiatus the magic was still there, and what’s more they were even playing a bunch of brand new material. With the lower floor of Hall One packed to capacity and the air crackling with an expectant buzz, it was Gateshead’s turn to join the party.

Opening with Yellow Hill, its busily contrapuntal and upbeat theme was executed with impeccable precision. Iain Ballamy and John Parricelli stepped out for the solos, and if any reminder of the depth of talent harboured within the ranks were needed then this was surely it. Eddie Parker’s quirkily pointillistic Exeter, King Of Cities came next, the three horn sections ranged line abreast across the vast stage in a scene of frenetic and slightly madcap activity. Slater’s witty MC-ing quickly became a feature of the evening, a number of running gags adding to the sense that this was music couched as both art and entertainment. Parricelli’s solo on Chris Batchelor’s Would I Were perhaps strayed a little too close to soft-rock for comfort, but Django Bates’s Eden Express quickly redressed the balance as Mark Lockhart blew a gutsy solo, harried all the way by Martin France’s pummelling beats. Eddie Parker’s Bright Smoke, Cold Fire carried strong echoes of Mahavishnu, the absent Steve Berry’s Smoke And Daffodils was redolent of Kenny Wheeler’s elegant large ensemble writing, and the choppy rhythms of Bates’s As I Was Saying leaned heavily on the vibrancy of Afro-beat. Perhaps the most intriguing piece of the night however was Chris Batchelor’s recent composition Creeper, an unwieldy musical leviathan, moving from free-form blowout to off-kilter waltz with the most curious of gaits.

It had been a long, loud and glorious blast, but the evening finally drew to a reluctant close with the hymnal Sād Africa. As hundreds of smiling faces filed out of the building to be met by a bitterly cold wind, all of the band’s formative influences - from township jazz to post-Weather Report fusion, classical music and reggae - were very much in evidence. Collective experiences gathered during the long hiatus seemed to make Loose Tubes a more seasoned ensemble, and crucially they remain a vital and relevant force 30 years after their original formation. Another stint at Ronnie’s is lined-up this coming September, yet with high overheads, a straitened climate for arts funding and many band members balancing busy teaching and performance schedules, it would be foolish to predict how long the current reunion will last. Each show could easily bring down the final curtain, so catch them while you can.

All pix by John Watson


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