Romaria marks the second outing for saxophonist Andy Sheppard's self-proclaimed "dream band." While he worked with guitarist/electronicist Eivind Aarset as far back as 2008's Movements In Color, he is the latest addition to this group. Sheppard, drummer Seb Rochford and bassist Michel Benita all worked together on 2011's Trio Libero. the continued building their chemistry live until Aarset formally joined the outfit for 2015's fine, Surrounded By The Sea.
While the approach is similar on Romaria--particuarly in the gentleness evidenced in its elegantly articulated bookend ballads "And A Day..." and "Forever"--orignally two versions of the same tune but recontextualized for this album-- there are key differences as well. The title track is the only cover here. Composed by Renato Texeira, the original version was an MPB hit for the great Brazilian songstress Elis Regina--who passed in 1982 at the age of 36. Sheppard's version is tender but bright, lyrical yet open. He and Benita handle the first minute as a duet before Rochford enters haltingly with his brushes on snares and cymbals prefiguring Aarset's fingerpicking through the changes. While the dynamic changes a bit, it never leaves its harmonic center--Sheppard is a brilliant melodic improviser. While the track complements the aforementioned cuts, it contrasts sharply with "Thirteen" and "They Came From the North," where Rochford and Benita, freed from restraint, up the intensity level of the group and become almost explosive in their driving intensity. "With Every Flower That Falls" is re-visioned specifically for this group. It's adapted from Sheppard's commission from the Bristol International Jazz Festival that accompanied a screening of Fritz Lang's 1927 masterpiece Metropolis. While it occurs during a romantic moment in the dystopian film, this version is underscored as a standalone love song. Sheppard's economic choice of notes and airy embochure in duet with Benita's plectrumlines make it one of the most beautful moments on the album. "Pop" is an outlier. With a double time brush attack by Rochford, Sheppard adds contrast by slowing down his soulful, bluesy lyric line by half, offering plenty of space for Aarset to color the margins with an uncharactetristically warm tone. Benita's bass plays the role of a second melodic accompanist. We're talking West Coast jazz meets Noel Coward meets postbop. "All Becomes Again" emerges from Sheppard's sparse lyric statement as a frame for Benita and Aarset as Rochford dances along his snare, ride and hit hat cymbals. It's airy but far from ethereal, a midtempo ballad flush with the flavor of spring. Sheppard's gift of restraint allows for bountiful interaction and irresisitible musicality on Romaria, making it an essential addition to his catalogue and a fine extension of Surrounded By the Sea.