John Surman: Free and Equal (ECM 1802)

Free and Equal

John Surman
Free and Equal

John Surman soprano and baritone saxophone, bass clarinet
Jack DeJohnette drums, piano
London Brass
Recorded live June 2001 Queen Elizabeth Hall, London
Recording engineers: Steve Lowe and Ben Surman
Mixed January 2002 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo by Jan Erik Kongshaug, John Surman, and Manfred Eicher
Executive producer: Manfred Eicher

Free and Equal, John Surman’s furtherance of intermingling genres, is its own animal. Under its original title of That’s Right, it was the culmination of a 2000 festival commission and premiered in October that same year. The performance recorded for ECM comes from 2001, giving the work some time to incubate, as did subsequent mixing in Oslo’s Rainbow Studio under the direction of its composer, engineer, and producer.

Nods to classical and jazz modes are a clear and present danger throughout, for the purpose of their coexistence is not to mash them into some new hybrid but rather to flag their common goal: namely, to move listener and performer alike. Surman is joined by drummer Jack DeJohnette (also on piano) and classical stalwarts London Brass in an atmospheric tour de force that departs considerably from such previous experiments as Proverbs and Songs. The instrumentation alone would seem to imply a big band experiment à la Surman’s robust work with John Warren (see The Brass Project), but such is not the case. Neither should the DeJohnette connection, already well honed on Invisible Nature, foster misperceptions of what’s going on here. For as Surman paints the canvas with his soprano oils amid the swells of “Preamble,” it’s clear that freer considerations are at play. DeJohnette’s pianism, heard only occasionally on disc, proves descriptively apt in the follow-up “Groundwork,” which loops bass clarinet through trumpet in an evolving macramé of melody. Here, as elsewhere, Surman finds seemingly impossible paths for his improvisations through growing mazes of gold. Such balancing of the minimal and complex is no small task, and the establishment of that balance highlights their mutuality. It is in this spirit, perhaps, that DeJohnette doesn’t pick up his drumsticks until ten minutes into the album, working into “Sea Change” with the crash of surf in his cymbals, the heave of ocean waves in the brass choir at his back. His moments of abandon are thus kept within sight.

Soloists among the London players strengthen the marrow of this nine-part suite. The tuba soliloquy that opens “Back and Forth,” for one, gives an edible sense of textural contrast. Punctual and enlivening, it signals the first in a series of hardenings and dissolutions, from which trombone throws streams of light and draws Surman’s low reed into an invigorating trio with skins. Likewise, “Fire” traces the multifarious paths of its namesake through a modified trio of drums, trumpet, and bass clarinet. The latter continues its coppery speech in “Debased Line” with a nostalgia and restlessness of spirit that embodies Surman’s passion as a musician. “In the Shadow” evokes Paul McCandless in its sopranism, which floats over a relatively aggressive waltz in the background and sparks an ensemble-wide reaction in the title portion. Virtuosity is on full display as Surman looses his wilder side and fuels DeJohnette’s closing protraction. The drummer cracks many dams in the “Epilogue,” emptying into an open sea of well-earned applause.

Filled with exciting music that creates and maintains its own standard, Free and Equal represents an evolutionary leap in Surman’s compositional thinking. His uncanny ability to be at once joyful and mournful in a single arpeggio has elsewhere never been so explicit. It is music that begs for dancers or the flicker of a cinema screen—a vast, organic machine that runs on the promise of another listen.

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