It was producer Manfred Eicher’s clever idea to bookend this album with two takes of the same tune, “Forever and a Day,” a slow ballad written by the saxophonist-bandleader. Toward the end of take one, labeled “And a Day…,” Sheppard lets out a long, keening high note, an expression of deep vulnerability. On take two, or “Forever…,” he seems to answer that statement with a gruff note of acceptance down near the bottom of his range, more breath than pitch. Whether he’s playing tenor (as on these two tracks) or soprano, Sheppard likes to keep his volume at medium-low. But although he maintains a thoroughly English reserve, there’s plenty under the surface: romance, dry wit, tenderness and, above all, a questing spirit.
He’s found some wonderful colleagues to help him with his search. Guitarist Eivind Aarset never takes a conventional solo, leaning instead on heavily effected volume-swell chords that create a ghostly atmosphere, like a far-off cello section. This timbral choice pushes bassist Michel Benita to the fore, and he makes the most of it, contributing some gorgeously articulated upper-register melodies. Meanwhile, drummer Sebastian Rochford maintains a creative pulse throughout, getting most worked up during the subtly driving “They Came From the North.”
The emotional complexity that the group taps into so quietly but so effectively is best demonstrated by the album’s second track, “Thirteen.” Less than five minutes long, it shifts halfway through from a fast, ominous 13/8 (hence the title) to a light, reflective 6/8. Sheppard’s soprano skips insouciantly through the final half, but the foreboding tone of Aarset’s guitar remains the same as before, signaling that we may have reached brighter territory but we aren’t out of the woods just yet.