John Surman has had a wide ranging and varied career playing an unusual combination of instruments. As a baritone saxophonist, he is in a rarified group of jazz musicians that includes Gerry Mulligan, Harry Carney, and sometimes Anthony Braxton. He also plays soprano sax, a more straightforward jazz instrument, and bass clarinet, an instrument best known in jazz as a vehicle for Eric Dolphy. Surman is considered a master improviser and came up at a time when a number of British musicians were expanding what had been done in terms of improvisation and introducing new elements to jazz music. Some of Surman’s influences at the time include Alexis Korner, John McLaughlin, John Taylor, and Dave Holland. Surman also begin fiddling around with synthesizers and electronic music, which moved him further out into the realm of non-traditional musicians trying to find a new vocabulary for jazz and improvised music.
That Surman should find a perfectly sympathetic partner in American drummer Jack DeJohnette should come as no surprise. It’s not the first time the two have worked together (see 1981’s The Amazing Adventures of Simon Simon, also on ECM). DeJohnette is no stranger to the varied musical situations himself, having worked with musicians such as Terje Rypdal, Miroslav Vitous, and Lester Bowie; not to mention his presence on Miles Davis’ groundbreaking Bitches Brew, his work as CTI house drummer in the 1970s, and his ongoing role as a member of the Keith Jarrett “Standards” trio. The drummer has also worked with piano, electric piano, and synthesizers, so the two musicians here would seem to be totally in sync.
It is a testament to the abilities of both musicians that they are able to create incredibly beautiful, deeply textured, and widely varied music that is, for the most part, totally improvised. DeJohnette’s ballad, “Song for World Forgiveness” that ends the disc has a pre-arranged structure, but the rest is pretty freely improvised. It is stunning how the opening track, the 15 minute-plus “Mysterium” grows and builds in an organic fashion toward a climax that never gets out of control or turns into a squawkfest. The piece, centered on a bass line created by DeJohnette using an electronic drum and a drone chord created by Surman, allows DeJohnette to provide low-key percussion with occasional punctuating outbursts while Surman dances and capers around the mode suggested by the drone & bass line. At times “Mysterium” sounds a bit like a raga or a Middle Eastern improvisation, at others it is more like a mediaeval English folk tune. When it ends you may well feel you are “coming back” from somewhere outside your body, and you certainly won’t think you’ve been listening for 15 minutes, so interesting is the music created by these two masters.
“Rising Tide” is a more energetic outing, with DeJohnette taking on a post-bop drumming role, dropping bombs and defining the rhythm and tempo of the piece by playing around it rather than actually stating it. Surman solos on baritone sax, his tone husky and honky in the lower reaches of the instrument, sweet and soaring in the upper register. There’s really nothing avant-garde about the improvisation; if there were a bassist and pianist playing behind the duo, you wouldn’t think it out of place on any modern jazz album. “Outback Spirits” finds Surman using a digital delay unit on his soprano sax, a technique that echoes (no pun intended) the ‘60s and ‘70s experiments with the “echoplex” by John Klemmer and others. Because it is used sparingly, it never becomes an annoyance.
DeJohnette is able to create a variety of effects on the electronic drums using his hands. For example, on “Ganges Groove” he creates a tabla sound, while on “Fair Trade” the sound is a dead ringer for conga drums. DeJohnette’s gorgeous “Song for World Forgiveness” closes the disc with DeJohnette providing acoustic piano background to Surman’s deep, resounding bass clarinet. It’s worth noting that the performances here were recorded at two different events: the Tampere Jazz Happening and the Berlin Jazz Festival, both in November 2000. However, the strong structure of the improvised pieces together with the programming of those pieces onto this single disc make it seem like one exquisite performance.
ECM continues to be a stronghold of collective improvisation, one of few record labels, jazz or otherwise, that are pursuing this important aspect of modern music. Many in the jazz world think of ECM as a chamber jazz label whose artists create an almost ambient type of improvisational music. Releases like Invisible Nature prove the falsehood of that perception, for in keeping alive some of the most radical features of improvised jazz from the controversial ‘60s and ‘70s, ECM is as revolutionary as any label out there.