Switzerland is known for the precision of their finely crafted watches, and that same culture of precision seems to have shaped the musical approach of one of the country’s leading jazz ensembles: VEIN Trio. Pianist Michael Arbenz, bassist Thomas Lähns and drummer Florian Arbenz graced the stage of the Capstone Theatre on Sunday night for the final performance of this year’s Liverpool International Jazz Festival. Their playing was complex, varied and exacting, but also relaxed, demonstrating that this well-established trio are totally comfortable and assured of their obvious talent, but self-aware enough not to be showy about it.
The trio was joined for this set by recent collaborator and British saxophone legend, Andy Sheppard. The 62-year-old provided a sense of expressiveness that contrasted perfectly with the rigid, hyper-disciplined playing of the trio, creating a fascinating dichotomy, played out on stage, between older and newer styles of contemporary jazz.
Sheppard is a veteran of the British jazz scene and was recently awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Bristol recognising the impact of his career. VEIN and Sheppard seemed keen to emphasise this, mentioning his new title multiple times throughout the evening, and by weaving two jazz standards into the running order. In order to get a few small criticisms of the performance out of the way, it would be pertinent to dive into the rendering of these standards quickly.
The first, coming towards the end of the set, was a version of Duke Ellington’s ‘Reflections in D’, performed by Sheppard and VEIN’s pianist, Michael Arbenz. This was the only moment of the night where VEIN’s precision and Sheppard’s expressiveness did not mesh well, and it also became apparent here that while it is true that jazz musicians often improve with age, Sheppard is reaching a turning point many jazz musicians face, where some aspects of their technique begin to fail them. In Sheppard’s case, his ability to produce long notes, and low notes at low volumes is not what it once was, and this was particularly noticeable in a ballad such as this, as well as the second standard that the group used as an encore.
Despite this, Sheppard shone through the rest of the set, featuring a combination of erratic VEIN originals and stunningly creative renditions of pieces by renowned 20th century French composer, Maurice Ravel. VEIN, Sheppard and a number of other musicians released an album of Ravel pieces in 2017 to huge critical acclaim, and their performance of said pieces at the Capstone reinforced the view that VEIN and co. are at their very best when putting their spin on master works of classical music.
A particular highlight was a version of Ravel’s ‘Five O’clock Foxtrot’, which alternated insanely dexterous improvising from Sheppard and bluesy upright bass and drum grooves with perfectly placed, verbatim piano quotations from the original piece. Equally stunning was the quartet’s gorgeous treatment of the menuet from Ravel’s ‘Sonatine in F-Sharp Minor’, which seamlessly adapted Ravel’s distinct melodic style into the slickest saxophone lines of the evening, beneath which VEIN laid a satisfyingly mechanical accompaniment. The bass playing in particular was almost scarily precise – it really was a marvel to watch.
The most captivating performance of the night, however, came mid-set when Sheppard left the stage and VEIN embarked upon a medley of three movements from Ravel’s ‘Le Tombeau de Couperin’. Each of the three movements gave an individual member of the trio a chance to really shine, and it was at this point where it became clear two of the things that made this band so special. Firstly, the drummer, Florian Arbenz, approached his performance with so much care and humility. He was not only rhythmically meticulous, but also deeply concerned with the balance of the band. It’s rare that a drummer is so expressive and creative while able to maintain dynamic subtlety so as not to overpower the rest of the band. Even during his solo, which was the most spectacular of the night, he demonstrated an admirable level of restraint – it was mesmerising.
Secondly, it became clear that the exacting precision of the trio was what made their playing so viscerally satisfying. They may not have the telepathic spontaneity of a trio like Phronesis, but they were so well rehearsed that every note, every interaction felt perfectly controlled and timed. Trio playing doesn’t get more impressive than this.
After an exciting week of performances, this concert by VEIN and Andy Sheppard was the perfect way to close out the Liverpool International Jazz Festival. It combined the promotion of forward-looking ingenuity with a celebration of how we got there. Sheppard brought a sense of personality and nostalgia to a band commended for their accuracy and progressiveness; a blend of old and new showcasing the very best of contemporary European jazz.