Release date: January 26, 2004
John Surman is to the saxophone as a tuned mass damper is to a skyscraper. No matter the intensity of seismic activity at hand, he regulates balance, security, and stability through counteractive force. It’s an ability uncannily realized in “Druid’s Circle” (A Biography Of The Rev. Absalom Dawe, 1995), for which baritones provide rhythm and harmony beneath a dancing soprano, and “Portrait Of A Romantic” (Private City, 1988), a tender gathering of bass clarinet, recorder, and synth that tingles with fairytale magic. Such solo spaces are his métier, created through patient multitracking in studio and refined through an aging process that gives it a patina. Employing a sequencer in “Edges Of Illusion” (Upon Reflection, 1979) and using keyboards as a means of keeping time in “Piperspool” (Road To Saint Ives, 1990), he emits signals from universes within to those without.
Surman has also widened the scope of his own music in cyclical “The Returning Exile” (The Brass Project, 1993), “The Buccaneers” (The Amazing Adventures Of Simon Simon, 1981) in duet with drummer Jack DeJohnette, and “Stone Flower” (Coruscating, 2000), which pairs his baritone with an inkwell string section. Other collaborative endeavors mark his discography in cardinal directions. Where “Gone To The Dogs” takes us northward to 1995’s Nordic Quartet and “Figfoot” southward to 1992’s Adventure Playground, the latter alongside pianist Paul Bley, bassist Gary Peacock, and drummer Tony Oxley, “Number Six” from the Miroslav Vitous Group’s 1981 self-titled debut heads west with its circular breathing and dug-in heels, while “Ogeda” looks eastward to 1993’s November with guitarist John Abercrombie, bassist Marc Johnson, and drummer Peter Erskine. Abercrombie’s tender chorus effect contrasts pleasingly with Surman’s blade over the fluid rhythm section.
And in the freely improvised “Mountainscape VIII” (Mountainscapes, 1976), Surman’s baritone and the bass of Barre Phillips, along with Stu Martin on drums and Abercrombie on guitar, render some physically demanding terrain. Yet Surman always knows where to place his steps, defining his path even as the path defines him.