John Surman: The Spaces In Between (ECM 1956)

The Spaces In Between

John Surman
The Spaces In Between

John Surman soprano and baritone saxophones, bass clarinet
Chris Laurence double-bass
Rita Manning violin
Patrick Kiernan violin
Bill Hawkes viola
Nick Cooper cello
Recorded February 2006, Propstei St. Gerold
Engineer: Markus Heiland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

When reedman John Surman first collaborated with bassist Chris Laurence and an ad hoc string quartet on 2000’s Coruscating, the end result was a cause for beginnings. Unlikely surprising to the veteran Surman listener yet fresh as sun-dried sheets, the music of that debut opened a chapter in his compositional thinking now fleshed out to the depth of a novel on The Spaces In Between. Indeed, despite the wealth of fine performances all around, it’s the writing that makes this album such a notable entry in Surman’s expansive discography. The folk-infused melodies, and the means by which they are elucidated, shine through translucent curtains of improvisation, at which the bow-wielders now more forthrightly try their hands.

Balances abound. At the larger level, the album works in two halves, spit at the fulcrum of the title track. This playful sojourn for solo violin, brought to evocative fruition by quartet leader Rita Manning, upgrades the album’s wingspan from butterfly to bird, flitting from limb to limb in search of emerging buds. Before this, the set list steeps itself in winter, interlacing embraces and lettings go. Surman etch-a-sketches his own branches in “Moonlighter,” his methodical figurations seeming to describe a return from hard labor. In them is a sense of tragedy, with bass acting as narrator and strings as chorus. More nuanced balances follow. There is the diurnal contrast of bass clarinet (which under his fingers sings incarnate) and soprano saxophone. The latter doesn’t so much add to as emerge from the strings, drawing out warmth of heart from “Wayfarers All” and the crisper “Winter Wish.” As for those strings, they speak in pastoral dialects, their home a hearth among the ice.

Spring abounds on the other side of the album’s titular spaces, with “Now See!” setting tone in bucolic tracings. Only this and “Where Fortune Smiles” rely on the soprano’s inherent buoyancy to speak its own accord, favoring instead the baritone’s relatively challenging bounce. “Mimosa” (originally written for, but never included on, Thimar) elicits the jazziest inflections in this regard, that low reed moving jaggedly yet surely across the plains. This leaves only “Leaving The Harrow,” a song of drifting, of chemical reactions, of moving on.

Although its mise-en-scène is minimal, the emotional complexities of The Spaces In Between reach far and wide. Like the skies above, they welcome every change in weather, rain or shine, as if it were the first.

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