John Surman Quartet: Stranger Than Fiction (ECM 1534)

John Surman Quartet
Stranger Than Fiction

John Surman soprano and baritone saxophones, alto and bass clarinets
John Taylor piano
Chris Laurence double-bass
John Marshall drums
Recorded December 1993 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Reedist John Surman has laid much of his ECM path with the polished stones of his solo work. Whatever the setting, he is one who listens to his surroundings, be they atmospheric or human. In the latter vein comes “Canticle With Response,” which opens this wintry quartet date with pianist John Taylor, bassist Chris Laurence, and drummer John Marshall. Its sparse, porous mood is a leitmotif on Stranger Than Fiction. Yet rather than something to which the musicians return, it is something that returns to them, a ghost that finds movement where there is stillness. Like a sage’s hair in twilight, the group’s sound is gray yet aglow, worn to the bone by reflection in “A Distant Spring.” Surman sets his soprano to flight in the watercolors of “Tess,” for which Taylor splashes stories, each a step in river water. Those gray strands continue to bend and stretch, winding around the memorable theme of “Promising Horizons.” This haunting afterimage of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy bows to distillations of baritone and bass.

In this forest, dark with age, one can only travel “Across The Bridge,” guided by Surman’s prowess on the bass clarinet. His improvisations on said unwieldy instrument glisten despite the shadows of which they are composed. “Moonshine Dancer” welcomes us to a nocturnal circus, where performer and spectator number two in the night, their hands and laughter for each other alone, while “Running Sands” flows, like its namesake, at the touch of wind and water. A pliant solo from Laurence lifts us into the clouds, each topped like a sundae with delicious baritone caramel. Everything above funnels into the final “Triptych.” Like a fiber optic cable, it flows through the earth, hidden and dormant until the flick of a creative switch sets its veins thrumming with information—only here, you need nothing more than your ears to cup the light into oblivion.

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