John Surman: Brewster’s Rooster (ECM 2046)

Brewster's Rooster

John Surman
Brewster’s Rooster

John Surman baritone and soprano saxophones
John Abercrombie guitar
Drew Gress double-bass
Jack DeJohnette drums
Recorded September 2007 at Avatar Studios, New York
Engineer: Joe Furla
Assistant: Rick Kwan
Mixed June 2008 at Legacy Studio, New York by John Surman, Jack DeJohnette, and Joe Furla
Mastered by Christoph Stickel, Munich
Executive producer: Manfred Eicher

This jazzy outing with guitarist John Abercrombie, bassist Drew Gress (making here his ECM debut), and drummer Jack DeJohnette, sits multi-reedist and composer John Surman back in his most worn saddle. Only relatively straightforward (it’s not without its wild side), the album throbs like the beating heart that has given life to every stirring of this most peripatetic artist. His ECM discography is a compendium of riches, taking listeners through a sizable archive of solo dates, free jazz settings, classical commissions, music for stage and screen, and robust collaborations. Of the latter, his brass menageries with John Warren are especially memorable. And so, it is perhaps no surprise that Surman should pay respect by starting off the set with Warren’s “Slanted Sky.” The choice is duly appropriate: not only does it count every dollar of this fantastic quartet; it also establishes an eerily comfortable (and comforting) mood. As one of only two non-originals (the other being a lyrical take on Billy Strayhorn’s “Chelsea Bridge”) on the disc, “Slanted Sky” stands out for its structural difference. One sweep through its turnstile, and there’s no doubt you’ll be in good company for the next hour.

What a pleasure to hear Gress and DeJohnette playing side by side in “Hilltop Dancer,” their interactions as lithe as the title would have you believe. It’s a partnership not yet repeated for ECM, but one that bears ample fruit for the group’s melodic frontline to savor, as it does further in the title track and “Going For A Burton.” Both of these balance a gritty baritone atop an equilateral triangle of support, by turns slick and darkly whimsical.

Surman’s skywriting on soprano leaves its signature to dissipate into the oceanic blue of only two tunes, including the 11-minute “Counter Measures.” This one showcases the tonal mastery of each musician in kind, from Abercrombie’s undulating solo and Gress’s subtle pop to DeJohnette’s gluey tracings and Surman’s well-oiled joints, there’s plenty to admire on repeated listening. Yet this is really a baritone lover’s record. One spin of “Haywain,” and it all becomes clear, for what sounds like an entirely improvised tangle proceeds into unexpected unity.

Brewster’s Rooster is also an album with its own sense of humor, as expressed by the title “No Finesse.” It’s about as tongue-in-cheek as you might expect, for these musicians have finesse aplenty. Breathless yet secure, unhinged yet always close by, theirs is music that moves.

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