The title of John Surman’s latest release refers to the fact that the brass ensemble that accompanies Surman and drummer/pianist Jack DeJohnette plays music that is entirely notated, while the two principals improvise freely. Unlike many such jazz-meets-chamber-music collaborations, however, the two groups here are truly equals. There is blurring of the lines between the groups, too, as DeJohnette’s piano part over the first two sections is written and London Brass members Richard Edwards (trombone), John Barclay (trumpet), and Richard Bissill (French horn) improvise briefly in bridges between sections of the piece. There’s further blurring, typical with Surman, of the line between composition and improvisation. For the English woodwind player par excellence, improvisation has always been a major facet of his work, but more recently his compositional skills have come to the fore, and the blending of these elements has led to several highly satisfying recordings, including Coruscating and 2002’s Invisible Nature, another live improvisation with DeJohnette.
Surman is influenced not only by jazz and chamber music, but (like his labelmate Jan Gabarek) by folk music as well. In Surman’s case, the folk music in question is that of his native British Isles, and the lyrical quality with which it infuses his playing and his composition is remarkable. This quality can be heard immediately in Surman’s first entrance on soprano sax during “Preamble”; the piece sounds like an old English air. The brass section that follows on “Goundwork” has a similarly pastoral feel, with Surman leapfrogging over and around the swirling trumpet figure and DeJohnette’s trancelike piano line. The piece builds in complexity, concluding with a freely improvised section featuring Surman’s bass clarinet, Bissill’s French Horn, and some tympanic mallet rolls from DeJohnette.
“Sea Change” brings more rhythmic drive to the proceedings, as the brass section builds to a roar and DeJohnette opens up on full drum set, demonstrating why he is one of jazz and improvisational music’s greatest drummers. After a brief DeJohnette solo, the brass returns with a somewhat martial section that unravels into a swinging beat until Surman’s baritone sax explodes through like some great sea serpent. What follows is five minutes of incredibly swinging improvisation, DeJohnette and Surman flirting with a modified calypso that recalls the collaborations between Sonny Rollins and Max Roach. The following two tracks, “Back and Forth” and “Fire”, feature DeJohnette underpinning improvisational work by trombonist Edwards and trumpeter Barclay, and it’s a tribute to these musicians that their work stands up very well next to Surman’s work on “Sea Change” and “Debased Line”, where he occasionally manages to coax a near-alto sax sound from his bass clarinet.
The last movements continue to add depth to the overall composition and will delight listeners who have enjoyed the CD up to this point. “In the Shadow” has a lovely lilt to it, and both Surman and DeJohnette play with a lightness and playfulness that balances some of the more austere earlier sections. “Free and Equal” features a highly structured horn chart that drives forward, propelled by DeJohnette’s vital drumming and embellished with Surman’s deft soprano arabesques. DeJohnette brings the piece to a conclusion with a drum solo that features a keen use of dynamics to hold the listener’s attention. The brass re-enters, providing a droning, foreboding foundation for DeJohnette’s constant motion, ending with what sounds much like a hymn. The minute or so of heartfelt applause that greets the musicians at the end of the performance is testament to the spell that Surman, DeJohnette, and London Brass cast with this well-balanced performance. Over the course of three albums together in the past 20 years, Surman and DeJohnette have proven to be an interesting and ever-evolving improvisational duo. Here’s to more work together by these masters of improvisation.