Colston Hall, Thursday 16 March
Commissioning Andy Sheppard to compose this gig to open this year’s Bristol International Jazz and Blues Festival meant a real fanfare to the weekends Jazzathon, with an 8-strong local horn section complementing the saxophonist’s European trio with Norwegian guitarist Eivind Aarset and Italian percussionist Michele Rabbia. Echoing the still-relevant themes of the legendary silent film Metropolis this arrangement provided a counterpoint between the harsh mechanics of automation and the impassioned attempts of dissidents trying to restore compassion to the world, though this distinction was rarely as simplistic as it might sound.
Metropolis may be 90 years old but it remains visually compelling, with a melodramatic storyline played out in Art Deco futurism and Expressionist landscapes. The challenge for a soundtrack is to provide a musical context that complements the visual element without competing of attention – and which sustains itself for 90 minutes. From the opening blast of ominous brass Andy’s choice of line-up proved wisely flexible, first establishing a solid big band sound as the film got going, then opening up with Andy’s soprano sax as the more emotional themes emerged on screen.
Both Eivand Aarset and Michelle Rabbia are smart users of electronica in extending the range of what they can play, thus enabling almost orchestral guitar parts to mutate into electronic ambience or explosive sound effects to announce snapping snare drum grooves. These elements came and went, impressively synchronised to the images (which often had their own internal rhythms and moments) and while artfully done they (rightly) rarely distracted from the action onscreen. There were themes, particularly in the brass parts, but these were not overused – though bass trombonist Justin Pavey deserves special mention for stamina, especially in the film’s apocalyptic climax.
The many fans of Andy’s playing in this near-capacity audience should not have been disappointed, despite the diffidence of the music, not least because this was so evidently his music, with his kind of shapely melody and rhythmic subtlety always close at hand, and his two main collaborators were equally able to play their part to the full. It might be interesting to listen to the music again without the distracting images but what would be the point?