Since the 1980’s ECM artist Andy Sheppard has been one of the UK’s most identifiable saxophonists.
As a composer and saxophonist he has recorded and toured with so many amazing musicians including free jazz pianist Carla Bley, Gill Evans and John Schofield. I caught up with Andy to chat about the approach to learning saxophone that has made him so successful.
NM: So Andy, you came to saxophone quite late. What was the inspiration that got you started?
AS: Well, I started in music when I was quite young singing in choirs. So I was always into music but when I was about 18 I was all set to go to art college. I bumped into a jazz musician who turned me onto Miles Davis, Keith Jarrett, Charles Mingus and John Coltrane.
I was aware of Miles Davis and had heard a bit of jazz but I didn’t really know what this music was. Coltrane just blew me away and within 5 minutes I knew I had found my vocation. I thought – that’s the music I had been looking for all my life. I’ve got to play the saxophone.
So I sold everything I owned, bought a saxophone and just started practicing 8 hours a day.
NM: Do you remember which albums they were?
AS: For Coltrane it was A Love Supreme and Ascension which was really deep. I was also listening to the Charles Mingus albums Changes One and Changes Two. And also Backhand by Keith Jarrett with Charlie Haden. It was totally inspiring for me and an easy decision to make. I figured – I want to make this music. What’s the worst thing that could happen? I could starve, but we’re all going to die eventually, so I figured it was worth having a crack! [laughter]
NM: That’s pretty harmonically advanced music for an 18 year old. What was it that grabbed you about those albums?
AS: It was Coltrane’s sound and his attitude. I could feel there was no bull about it. It wasn’t trying to be commercial, it was just really deep. It was art, which was what I was heavily into. I could never see the link between art and music until I discovered this music we call jazz. And for me then it was “That’s it, that’s the link!”.
I’m still listening to Coltrane but these days I’m really into his albums from the 50’s as a sideman. I really think what he was doing on changes, his melodies and his sound are amazing. There’s inspiration there for all saxophone players.
NM: So how did you go about starting to learn to play like that?
AS: I would just put on Giant Steps and play along with it. Of course I thought I could get away with it but it’s only once you start studying that you realise, hang on, this is really deep. It’s like a three dimensional game of chess at rapid speed going on here.
I started out just using my ears and I guess that’s one of the frustrations of starting saxophone late. You’ve got a lot of catching up to do. I’ve actually never had a music lesson in my life, I’m still building up to my first lesson!
NM: Wow, so you’re completely self taught? How did you go about unravelling the mystery of what Coltrane was doing harmonically?
AS: Well I guess that was the problem because I was immediately pitching myself against the “Usain Bolt” of saxophone. I was listening to the best guys in history. I would record myself and realise I was right in the foothills of the mountain that these guys are at the top of. When you’re starting out that’s a really tough thing to get your head around.
I realised that there’s no shortcut. It’s just hard work. You’ve got to play those long tones and work on your harmonics every day, practice your scales inside out. And I’m still practicing every day. There’s always work to be done, things to discover.
“If you can sing through your instrument you’ll be making music.”
Essentially though, it’s not a competition. It’s important to think of playing like singing through the saxophone. It’s the same for every instrument. If you can sing through your instrument you’ll be making music. The more you practice, the wider your ears open and the more possibilities are available to you.
NM: You have recorded and performed with so many amazing musicians. Is that something you set out to do from the start?
AS: I think one of the things about being a musician is playing with other musicians. There’s this chemistry that goes on, and that is taken one step further with the audience. Everyone connects in that moment you are making music. I was immediately playing in all kinds of different bands, that’s one of the great things about being a saxophone player. It’s very easy to do, you just take your horn along and sit in with people.
I knew the kind of music I wanted to make and so I practiced really hard, and then put myself in situations where things would happen. I went to London, and on to Paris. I played on the street, I met people and got gigs. You make contacts and things start to happen. Also, I took every opportunity that came along.
I was lucky that I got to travel a lot and eventually got a record deal. I guess the formula is what you put in is what you get out. If you’re putting all that love and work into your playing then eventually the phone does go and things happen.
I’m always playing in challenging situations with incredible musicians. I’ve got one coming up this week with Ginger Baker (and I’m dreading it!).
Ginger Baker with Charlie Haden and Bill Frisell
Over the years I’ve been really fortunate to have long associations with some amazing players like Carla Bley, Steve Swallow, Gill Evans. I’ve also been busy with my own projects. All I ever really wanted to be was a saxophone player but to survive you have to compose, you have to travel and you have to collaborate with other players.
NM: You have such a wonderful, identifiable style Andy. How do you go about developing your own sound when it’s so different to other players?
AS: I have always wanted to be an artist with my music and I’m inspired by people who have that approach – guys like John Coltrane, Joe Henderson. It’s a natural approach which is really about trying to be yourself.
For me sound is the most important thing. Inevitably you won’t be happy with your own sound, just like we generally don’t like the sound of our own voices when we talk. But, the turning point I think is when you realise that the sound you are making is “you”. You need to work on that sound rather than trying to sound like Michael Brecker or whoever.
NM: So how do you go about working on that?
AS: I think it comes down to practice. I think every player should get the Sigurd Rascher book on harmonics – “Top Tones for Saxophone”. You’ll never get to the end of that book. I bought it 30 years ago and I’m still on page 6!
NM: Me too!
AS: If you work from that book, your sound will start to come together. Of course you also need to get your mouthpiece sorted so it suits you, your reed working, and also the right combination of mouthpiece, reed and ligature. It’s a real dilemma.
I’ve just developed this mouthpiece with Morgan Fry and I love it. I don’t understand what it is that makes one better than another – it’s voodoo but it makes all the difference for me.
NM: Have you got certain exercises that you like to work on?
AS: I think spending a quarter of an hour a day working through those “Top Tones” exercises is essential but I also play through ballads and tunes. I’m studying and learning all the time. Right now I’m learning a bunch of Ornette Coleman tunes. They’re fantastic.
NM: When you’re learning tunes do you do much transcribing?
AS: No, I rarely transcribe things. What I do like to do is play along with recordings. A lot of what I’ve learned has happened by playing onstage with players who are better than me, definitely when I was starting out. Somehow it rubs off like by osmosis. The next morning I would understand something that I didn’t before.
I think it’s a great thing to put on a Coltrane album and just play along. Don’t try to play it exactly like him but to mimic his style. Just have a blow and use your ears.
Over the years I’ve played a lot with Carla Bley and she has often said she hired me because I didn’t sound like John Coltrane. She’s a player who can perform for two hours and never play a single cliché.
You’ve got to be yourself and develop your own personality on the instrument otherwise you’ll never get started.Miles Davis famously said “don’t play the note you know, play the note you don’t know”. All these musicians though have a line running through their work that they studied. They have their foundation skills together, their sound, their tuning and reading. I don’t believe you can just pick up a saxophone and start playing. It’s all about hard work, but you’ll be rewarded for that. Not with dollars though!
Tenor Saxophone: Andy Sheppard Autograph Series tenor with a Autograph series mouthpiece by Morgan Fry.
“I’m so proud of this saxophone. It has taken a long time to develop but the end result is amazing.”
Soprano: Yanagisawa Solid silver one piece soprano. I was previously using a Selmer Mark VI but I found it a bit challenging with the tuning up top.
Main image courtesy Sara Da Costa
Andy is touring the UK to promote his latest ECM release “Surrounded by Sea”.
Tickets and info: http://www.serious.org.uk/events/series/andysheppard
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