John Surman

Rarum -- Selected Recordings Vol. 13

by Robert R. Calder

18 March 2004


Surman's Something

The notes to this in many respects exemplary production refer to the beginnings of John Surman‘s career and talk of maybe the best baritone saxophonist since Gerry Mulligan.

As I remember, he was spoken of even more highly than that. It’s necessary to purge this review quite early of my yearning for his baritone playing. A whole CD of it would be a rare wonder, but Surman’s range as composer and instrumentalist takes precedence here. As another reviewer has observed, the attempt to be representative is in this case defeated before it begins. There’s just a gigantic range. One gathers from his memoir that he took advice in an ideal setting, though as the night wore on somebody who’d shipped too much ale—well, they confused his discography with that of a Scandinavian who recorded with the Hilliard Ensemble. Surman had John Taylor on organ, and the Salisbury Festival Chorus. The snaps from Mum’s photo album are an unusual touch. Little Johnny bewigged in a school play? Littler Johnny fishing? Maybe this CD is a photo album?

cover art

John Surman

Rarum -- Selected Recordings Vol. 13

US: 10 Feb 2004
UK: 26 Jan 2004

I was especially arrested by Surman’s work as a driving and very forward soprano saxophonist in the quartet with the late Kenny Kirkland. If we had two Surmans/Surmen, one could play saxophone and the other the compositional stuff, full of native influences, from the land of Vaughan Williams and the folksingers VW recorded and studied; the land of Elgar, Delius, Ben Britten, Morris Dancers, scholarly rectors in rural parsonages. There was even Alexis Korner, a pioneer European blues singer Surman worked with when not working with Mike Gibbs, Graham Collier, and other English jazz composers. It’s not like finding out that Mr. S. can do a remarkable number of things, but that he can perform as a specialist in yet another specialised field.

Back to “Number Six” with Kirkland, and the excited overtone-thickened driving soprano sound. It makes a whopping contrast with the opening “Druid”, one of Surman’s exercises in his own ensemble music performed by only himself. The suite it comes from is “A Biography of the Reverend Absalom Dawe” and the solo part features the soprano as a sort of plummy oboe. Very English it sounds (a plummy cor anglais?). And then there are all these gyrations over John Christensen’s drums which open “Number Six”, and the screech-screaming pseudo altosaxophone workout with Miroslav Vitous (leader on the date) working his fingers away on that roarer.

“Portrait of a Romantic” opens with what seems a very long recorder, or a Chinese flute. And in comes the bell-like synthesizer with that machinery’s plucking department doing a sort of guitar. Bass clarinet next, and electronic neo-maraccas. The synthesizer’s move into string ensemble mode doesn’t do anything actually to make the performance notably better.

“Ogeda” from John Abercrombie’s November date did brighten me up again, Surman on soprano stylistically between “Druid” and “Number Six”.

‘The Returning Exile” from the Brass Project date opens with the trumpets and tenor and bass trombones playing something familiar. I’ll remember which nineteenth-century symphony it is someday. The bass clarinet duet with Malcolm Griffiths’s plunger-muted trombone reminds me how good Griffiths’s playing is. The ensemble in the middle is out of late Ellington. The Far East Suite is near. Up comes the soprano towards the conclusion.

“Edges of Illusion” begins with the synthesizer doing a steam-organ’s damnedest to play Bach, joined after a number of bars by the bass clarinet, with the baritone sax making accompanying noises. In cometh the soprano, and just a hint of the comical as the different dubbed parts give an impression of instruments making remarks to each other (like the patter in a Rossini ensemble). The baritone seems to be on a loop. Enter Johann Sebastian Sopranosaxophone, two of him I think, with the other horns unlooped. Surman’s stupendous saxophone and synthesizer ensemble really keep this going. Ten minutes and nine seconds of 1979 music for Philip Glass to eat his heart out to.

And now, or at last, we have Surman soprano solo, with Jack de Johnette in duo (1981), ranging from the sustained swinging squawk to terribly English but bringing in a lot of different noises, from which the sticking of a pig isn’t necessarily absent. Nor even is a strong melodic sense as he screeches and squeals a few Bach-like lines and the performance fades over athletic drumming.

‘The Snooper” (from Withholding Pattern, 1984) is a prodigious bass clarinet solo. And for the first time, I thought the performance maybe too short (1:56). Suddenly it’s Barre Phillips, very forward on bass, playing #8 from 1976’s Mountainscapes , John Abercrombie with the amp turned up. Stu Martin thrashes, I’m not sure what’s happening in the background. The track listing mentions no synthesizers but two drivers of the contraption are listed in the discography as on this CD. Can it be that he is really playing baritone on a distant peak and making Pharaoh Sanders very much background noises? He sounds as if he’s a long way off and doing his damnedest to be heard. It is possible the engineering was botched, and only that possibility could be cited against my surely very reasonable observation that this is an odd choice for a Surman selection. Well, he picked it!

Paul Bley plays piano on his own “Figfoot” with Gary Peacock’s bass and Tony Oxley’s drums. It’s a playful little thing, bouncing away on a witty pastiche of a funk theme, merymercymercy, and beautifully danceable with Surman behind and entirely on top of his baritone. He’s supreme again on baritone on “Piperspool” (1990) from Road to St. Ives. The “keyboards” he supposedly played are a loop (some English folkdance is too) above which he does much more interesting things on baritone. The magical southwest of England enters as the baritone ceases and the synthesizer, prior to fading, does its version of birdsong across a wide expanse. And now we have Terje Rypdal’s thrashed guitar—also at some contrived acoustic distance—with Vigleik Storaas chording on piano and Surman on soprano doing, I have to say, some of the same things he’s done already on other titles he chose for this CD.

I’ve read elsewhere that the concluding composition and performance was dedicated to Harry Carney, whom I revere above most jazz musicians. It was with Carney that Surman was compared when he appeared as a baby baritone virtuoso, and there are indeed some respects in which hardly anybody else matches that master. There is a classical string quartet playing in an English slightly swaying genre. It’s a good foundation, over or under which Chris Laurence plays bass with wonderful timing. Surman is simply magnificent on this duly celebrated item from 1999’s Coruscating. Such lyrical mastery is very, very rare.

But I have to say that not everything in which John Surman is a master has equal appeal for me. He doesn’t consistently avoid a certain slickness, and to some extent it can seem that when he is doing most, the tendency to fall into too exclusively virtuoso considerations becomes a shade too powerful. He’s on over thirty ECM CDs, half his own and half with other people. One of them is of the music of John Dowland, sung straight with English jazz musicians playing in their twentieth century idiom rather than in the sort of style worked out following the rediscovery of Dowland’s music after several hundred years when it was relatively unknown. Perhaps scholars interested in the revival of a notion of Englishness, following three to four hundred years of the United Kingdom and the now dismantled British Empire will find something of interest in Surman’s immersion in his native culture as it’s been revived. Certainly not everybody has my reservations about synthesizers. Sets with piano, bass and drums such as Stranger than Fiction and Adventure Playground are more my pint of Surman’s, neither represented here by more than one title; both with ample evidence that an abler saxophonist or bass clarinetist may not exist. This set has its own considerable extraordinarily various interest, and if you think the above reads as in places too severe it’s probably a strong recommendation for you.


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