John Surman: Invisible Threads (ECM 2588)

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John Surman
Invisible Threads

John Surman soprano and baritone saxophones, bass clarinet
Nelson Ayres piano
Rob Waring vibraphone, marimba
Recorded July 2017 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineers: Peer Espen Ursfjord and Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: January 19, 2018

John Surman is one of those rare reed players whose tone is so recognizable that it contributes to an ever-expanding autobiography with every aural stroke. In this unusual new trio, he joins forces with pianist Nelson Ayres, who he met while recording in Brazil, and vibraphonist Rob Waring. The program consists largely of material written for this studio occasion, and by its dovetailed aesthetic renders one image after another of cinematic integrity. The most vivid tracks in this regard include “The Admiral” (a dream of maritime proportions), “Pitanga Pitomba” (the marimba of which reveals a Southeast Asian influence), and Ayres’s folky “Summer Song” (the only track on the ballot not written by Surman). The pianist adds even deeper grooves to “Autumn Nocturne,” a picturesque scene that glides easily into the soul. He dashes Latin flavor into the music’s broth, thereby encouraging a fragrant symbiosis of ingredients.

The interplay of the band is cosmic, as in the airy “Within The Clouds” and the more haunting “On Still Waters.” From the latter’s bowed vibraphone, Surman’s bass clarinet emerges as lava in search of a place to form an island, while the former spans the gamut from amphibian sermon to avian reverie and compresses the most beautiful parts of summer into five minutes of bliss. “At First Sight” is one among a handful of diurnal excursions in which Surman’s soprano cuts the air like a bird threading the needle of time. Both this and “Another Reflection” are built around the harmonies of “Byndweed,” an album highlight for the communion of Ayres and Waring, and Surman’s lilting poetry. His baritone (viz. “Concentric Circles”) flexes the broadest muscles of all and, not unlike “Stoke Damerel,” lushly reimagines memories of what came before.

As the album’s title implies, these threads may be invisible, but they’re nevertheless easy to detect in what amounts to one of Surman’s most vital sessions to date. Buy it now, and it will make up for whatever you spend on it a hundredfold in your first listen.

John Surman: Saltash Bells (ECM 2266)

Saltash Bells

John Surman
Saltash Bells

John Surman soprano, tenor and baritone saxophones, alto, bass and contrabass clarinets, harmonica, synthesizer
Recorded June 2009 and March 2011 at Rainbow Studios, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by John Surman and Manfred Eicher

Saltash Bells expands multi-reedist John Surman’s ECM cartographies in directions that are at once new and familiar. The album marks a return to the solo projects that so distinguished his contributions to recorded art in the 80s and 90s. Originally conceived as the soundtrack for a documentary on the English West Country that fell through the cracks, the music evolved from memories of Surman’s childhood in Devon, of which the local environs are cued by track titles throughout.

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Despite the fact that Surman’s solo efforts are known for incorporating—seamlessly, I might add—the technological adornments of synthesizers and digital delays, there’s always a taste of soil about them. Take, for instance, “Whistman’s Wood,” which opens the program with a program of its own in the form of pulsing, electronic signals beamed across a vista tilled by bass clarinet. An ancient spirit works the land, lifting arpeggios from their graves and animating them in such a way that respects their ability to sing. All this before Surman’s baritone proclaims its inner heart and unfolds it as a map for the journey to follow. Guided by a comet’s tail of soprano, he proceeds into the lonesome yet unbreakable bass clarinet of “Glass Flower.”

On the low reeds Surman is unmatched. His bass clarinet hovers as a sagacious presence over the oceanic currents of “On Staddon Heights” until a soprano joins in the swim, caressing every bubble to ensure it doesn’t break on the way to the surface. The same pairing ends the album with “Sailing Westwards,” further augmented by an exclusive appearance of harmonica. Aquatic textures also pervade the title track, which immediately follows “Ælfwin,” a robust yet lacey baritone solo. Between this and “Dark Reflections” (an unaccompanied piece for soprano), one can chart a defining contradiction of Surman’s playing: the higher the reed, the darker the sound, and vice versa. And in the solos especially, listeners can encounter the naked, self-directed nature of his writing.

The small congresses of “Triadichorum” and “The Crooked Inn” nevertheless pack visceral effect, rounding out one of Surman’s finest to date with the assurance that he still has decades more to say.

(To hear samples of Saltash Bells, click here.)

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.

John Surman/Howard Moody: Rain On The Window (ECM 1986)

Rain On The Window

Rain On The Window

John Surman baritone and soprano saxophones, bass clarinet
Howard Moody church organ
Recorded January 2006 at Ullern Kirke, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Since their first collaboration on Proverbs and Songs, Ivan Moody (then as conductor, here as organist) and reedman John Surman have established an affinity that manifests itself vividly throughout this duo session under the evocative title Rain On The Window. Recorded in the Ullern church of Oslo, the program includes mostly originals and improvisations, the two exceptions being renditions of the English folk song “O Waly Waly” and the Negro spiritual “I’m Troubled In Mind.” The latter two bring earthiness and grit to the album’s textural palette. Both also feature Surman on baritone saxophone, as do a number of pieces, including “Stained Glass” and the brief yet memorable “Dancing In The Loft,” a free improvisation that showcases Surman’s eminently recognizable approach to the instrument. All of these and more are laid at the altar of “Pax Vobiscum,” a baritone prayer that ends the album. Like a phoenix from the ashes of Moody’s dense embers, Surman’s lyricism sings, reborn, in light of day.

Yet in spite of the recording’s sacred leanings, there is a refreshingly agnostic sheen to its musculature, as attested by Surman’s ingenious sopranism. Between the geometry of “Circum I” and the klezmer-like flourishes of “Step Lively!” there is plenty of gradation to be found. Some portions of the program (specifically, “The Old Dutch”) cast their nets back into childhood, when the calliopes of distant carnivals still mingled with the breeze. At times Surman’s tone matches Moody’s with its clarity and fortitude, while at others it looks through a glass darkly. Moody even goes solo in the inward spiral that is “Tierce.”

Like the title track, the record as a whole makes stars of raindrops and connects them in virtuosic constellations. The listener need be no astrologist to appreciate their interlocking stories, for each is told as if for the first—and the last—time.

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.

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.

John Surman: Coruscating (ECM 1702)

Coruscating

John Surman
Coruscating

John Surman soprano and baritone saxophones, bass and contrabass clarinets
Chris Laurence double-bass
Rita Manning violin
Keith Pascoe violin
Bill Hawkes viola
Nick Cooper cello
Recorded January 1999 at CTS Studios, London
Engineer: Markus Heiland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

The title of John Surman’s Coruscating means sparkling. Yet with track names like “At Dusk,” “Moonless Midnight,” and “An Illusive Shadow,” we are squarely in a nocturnal realm. The multi-reedist, along with bassist Chris Laurence, puts his touch on this set of eight compositions, which over the album’s course blend into a seamless whole. At their center is an ad hoc string quartet, to which Surman and Laurence act as improvisatory satellites. The two aforementioned sections drop Surman’s oboe-like soprano into pre-written cuts of land, each a ripple in a lake that holds ebony sky in its cup.

Although it will not be surprising to any Surman fan, it is as baritonist—ever the rightful successor to Gerry Mulligan—that he comes closest to bringing the shine. Whether in the softly rolling sentiments of “Dark Corners” or the  muscular stirrings of “Stone Flower” (in memory of another baritone great, Harry Carney), his low reed dots the compass many times over through charcoal travels. “Winding Passages” is the most mature of these breeze-swept soliloquies and provides a solid platform for the composer’s bronzed hieroglyphs. Laurence shakes his most geometric ghosts out in “Crystal Walls,” while “For The Moment” mixes cello tracings into vibraphone, Surman’s restless gestures carrying us all the while into deeper pasture.

Those who weren’t quite feeling Proverbs and Songs might find Coruscating more accessible, if only because there is so much space for listeners to relax and, in spite of all the darkness, feel their way around. It is a dream of quotidian objects sleepwalking for want of a place to have purpose, only to discover that their wandering is that very thing.

Alternate Coruscating
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John Surman: Proverbs and Songs (ECM 1639)

Proverbs and Songs

John Surman
Proverbs and Songs

John Surman baritone and soprano saxophones, bass clarinet
John Taylor organ
John Surman
Howard Moody conductor
Recorded live at Salisbury Cathedral, 1 June 1996
Engineer: Mike Walter
Produced by Derek Drescher and Manfred Eicher

Multi-reedist John Surman returns to his chorister roots and lays bare his compositional prowess with this oratorio commissioned by the Salisbury Festival and premiered in June of 1996. The Salisbury Festival Chorus, founded in 1987 by Howard Moody (of whose compositions the Hilliard Ensemble and Trio Mediaeval have been strong proponents) approaches its Old Testament sources as the composer sets them: that is, with panache, a flair for syncopation, and raw intensity. Add to this pianist John Taylor in an unexpected turn on cathedral organ, and you’ve got a recipe for one of Surman’s most intriguing catalogue entries to date.

Despite the forces assembled, it is he who dominates the palette. The “Prelude” immediately places his cantorial baritone amid a wash of organ in a free-flowing Byzantine mode, thereby establishing a rich narrative quality from the start. Our first foray into choral territory comes in the form of “The Sons,” a robust piece that works men’s and women’s voices in an iron forger’s antiphony toward genealogical harmony. At first, the thicketed singing feels more like a shoreline along which reed and pipes crash in pockets of light and bas-relief. Yet as the “The Kings” soon proves, it is capable of the jaunty togetherness at which Surman excels. “Wisdom” has its finger most firmly on this pulse of greater fellowship, for there is a wisdom of Surman’s own in the brushwork of his soprano, which dances for all the world like the world.

This being a live BBC Radio 3 recording that was later mixed down at Oslo’s Rainbow Studio, the quality is rather compressed. Then again, so is the music, the message of which is as dense as its King James texts. The album’s space is left to Taylor, its images to the voices, its method to Surman’s winds. There is a rusticity to the album’s sound that matches the unadulterated emotions of the music. We hear this especially in “Job,” which like its scripture upholds divine reason in the face of hardship. The chanting here is a form of punctuation, the snaking baritone lines its restless grammar.

“No Twilight” continues to unravel the sopranic weave in what amounts to the heart of the album, both in spirit and in execution, and places the voices at the slightest remove to haunting effect. Surman’s streaks of sunlight—here the voices of reason—add depth of field to this vision, so that the whimsical shallows of “Pride” emphasize the frivolity and fragility of their eponym. The truth comes out in the ruminative organ solo that epilogues the piece. “The Proverbs,” with its ominous recitation, is the freest and builds eddies of judgment and self-reflection (note Surman’s brilliant evocation of the dissenter) until the rays of sacrifice blind with “Abraham Arise!”

In light of the stellar body of choral work that ECM has produced, Surman’s forays into the same are not life-changing, if only because they are about unchanging life. True to the lessons at hand, it is more descriptive than it is aesthetic. Its juxtaposition of distinct sonic color schemes is pure Surman, and represents not a detour from but a dive into the kaleidoscope of his discography…and one well worth taking, at that.

John Surman/Jack DeJohnette: Invisible Nature (ECM 1796)

John Surman
Jack DeJohnette
Invisible Nature

John Surman soprano and baritone saxophones, bass clarinet, synthesizers
Jack DeJohnette drums, electronic percussion, piano
Recorded November 2000, Tampere Jazz Happening and Berlin JazzFest
Engineers: Ralf Sirén and Ekkehard Stoffregen
Produced by Steve Lake and John Surman

Since first recording for ECM as a duo on The Amazing Adventures Of Simon Simon, multi-reedist John Surman and drummer Jack DeJohnette have maintained a connection that finds deeper traction on the seven enhancements of Invisible Nature. Surman gurgles his way through the organ drone of “Mysterium,” which combined with a plodding bass line sounds like the seed of Jan Garbarek’s RITES. It is a silvery tapestry unspooling in flourishes that escape our ken. The music is so much of its own world that to hear applause segueing into “Rising Tide” is jarring. It reminds us that we’re still on Earth, that what we’ve been hearing has come from human hands and breath. The fantastic sweep of baritone amid DeJohnette’s frenetic pacing here elicits a wide spectrum, and charts the same balance of delicacy vs. punch that makes tracks like “Underground Movement” and “Ganges Groove” such inspiring excursions. Painting his snare like the eye of a hurricane, DeJohnette crystallizes steady grooves for Surman’s cerebral and biologically direct highs in the former, while in the latter he paints with his tabla generator a scene as lush as it is arid. “Outback Spirits” makes gorgeous use of digital delay in a trip filled with cinematic tension, equal parts Nicolas Roeg and Stanley Kubrick. It is the elegance of uninhibited joy, the patter of the disembodied. A welcoming freedom of expression prevails. “Fair Trade” is the masterwork of the collection and shows the depth and breadth that these two legends are capable of when the gloves come off and all that’s left to feed on is fire. Between the crunchy baritone and DeJohnette’s astonishing ear for space, there is more than enough to savor for future listening. “Song For World Forgiveness,” the only piece not entirely improvised, floats a swanky bass clarinet on a river of lipstick and smoky alleyways: an homage to roots, to loves, and to new beginnings.

For all the trickery, there is at this album’s core a duo of infinite potential, one that walks a tightrope—blindfolded—across wide canyons. The nature of this music may be invisible, but man, is it ever audible.