Monday, June 30, 2014

Recent Listening: John Surman

John Surman is a player I have been meaning to check out for a while now. I’m not only interested in his soprano work but also the fact that his music crosses from the jazz realm into the “what do you call this?” abyss.

The Spaces In Between (ECM) – Surman (soprano/baritone sax, bass clarinet) and Chris Laurence (bass) joined by the string quartet of Patrick Kiernan, Rita Manning (violin) Bill Hawkes (viola) and Nick Cooper (cello). Very melodic playing at times blurs the line between improvisations and composed material. Overall the feel is unhurried, melodic and somewhat introspective. There’s almost a suite-like feel to the album with the pieces flowing together well – just as I felt it was getting a bit bogged down things picked up again. It was fun trying to pick which instrument Surman would play on each track as I listened to the introductions. Recorded in 2006 at the St. Gerold monastery in Austria, which I believe is where the Bley/Phillips/Parker album Sankt Gerold was recorded (also on ECM).

In The Evenings Out There (ECM) This one is usually listed under the leadership of pianist Paul Bley but the other musicians – John Surman (baritone/bass clarinet) Gary Peacock (b) and Tony Oxley (d) – share credit on the album spine.
The album mixes things up over the 12 tracks with solo (4 by Bley, 2 by Peacock, 1 by Surman on Baritone), duo (Peacock/Oxley, Bley/Peacock, Oxley/Bley) and 2 quartet performances (Surman on baritone and bass clarinet). The recording has a very open feel, there’s plenty of space for the musicians to play, listen and react – free and melodic. As usual when I hear Bley I wonder why I don’t listen to more from him. It would have been nice to hear a bit more from Surman. Apparently the pieces here were recorded at the session in 1991 that resulted in Adventure Playground that was released under Surman’s name – I’ll have to check that.

Fragments (ECM) 
Another from Bley, is time with Bill Frisell (g) and Paul Motian (d) joining Surman (4 tracks on Bass Clarinet 2 each on Baritone and soprano and sits one track out). Of the nine tracks, there were a few that I had heard before (Frisell’s “Monica Jane” Carla Bley’s “Seven” and “Closer” and Annette Peacock’s “Nothing Ever Was, Anyway”). Quite a mellow set with Surman’s “Line Down” being the odd-one-out, but it does provide some contrast. Strong individual voices yet the quartet come together and work well.

The Biography of Rev. Absalom Dawe (ECM 1994)
This is the first solo album I’ve heard from Surman – he has recorded a few dating back to the late 1970s. The horns (baritone & soprano sax, bass clarinet, some alto clarinet too) get a pretty even spread across the album. Most of the tracks utilize some form multi-tracking with Surman accompanying himself on one or more horns or synth, although there is space for unaccompanied playing. Overall this one didn’t grab me as much as the discs with Bley, but there was still plenty to like (I could take or leave the synth parts). I feel like I’ll warm up to it – the second listen was better than the first. ”The Far Corner’s” did give me a chance to hear his soprano tone on its lonesome (aside from the ever-present ECM reverb).



Under the leadership of Tunisian oud player Anouar Brahem comes Thimar (ECM, 1997) with John Surman (soprano sax/bass clarinet) and Dave Holland (bass).
The album has an unhurried feel to it. The occasional (and very subtle) vocal from Brahem (on “Qurb” for example) adds a little extra of color to the fairly stripped-back feel of the album. Surman divides his time pretty evenly between two horns – four on bass clarinet and five of soprano (including an unaccompanied feature on “Wagt”) and he sits two tunes out. It would have been nice to hear him play some baritone too. At times his soprano summons an “eastern flavor” – not surprising considering the material. There is one composition each from Holland and Surman – the remaining nine are from Brahem.

Surman gets a rich tone on both baritone and bass clarinet and there’s a buzz to his soprano tone that I enjoy. He’s a melodic player with a sense on drama. Not someone I hear mentioned all too often but well worth checking out. I’m looking forward to exploring some more – perhaps some of his earlier work and the other session with Bley/Oxley/Peacock.

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