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When Jack DeJohnette visited London with the Bill Evans trio in 1968, the drummer instigated a series of jam sessions at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club. One of the musicians he met there was a local reedman named John Surman. The young saxophonist was barely known outside of Britain at the time. But judging from his eponymous debut, which would be recorded later that year, Surman had already found a voice within a genre that has often been described as America’s classical music. By the time he and DeJohnette reunited in 1981, when they made the experimental duo record The Amazing Adventures Of Simon Simon, it was clear that Surman had established himself not by Xeroxing American jazz, but by embracing his otherness.
To get a sense of Surman’s sound, you could do a lot worse than to check out “Slanted Sky,” the opening track of the saxophonist’s latest, Brewster’s Rooster. The song, like the album itself, features Surman fronting a quartet, which, in this case, is filled out by DeJohnette, as well as guitarist John Abercrombie and bassist Drew Gress. The setting is unusual for Surman, who has in recent years recorded with a choir (2008’s Proverbs and Songs), a string section (2007’s The Spaces In Between), and a classical brass ensemble (2003’s Free and Equal). It is also, paradoxically, an excellent way to experience his deviations from the jazz norm. On “Slanted Sky,” Surman’s unaffected soprano lines evoke the purity and directness of a synthesizer tone. There’s little of the bluesy warble or bite that saxophonists, especially those of the post-Coltrane generation, use to express emotion.
And yet Surman’s playing cannot be solely defined by what it avoids. On “Counter Measures,” the Brit’s lean soprano work generates a sense of melancholy that has more to do with delivery than with melody. It’s true that when Surman switches to baritone, an instrument that lends itself to swing and blues, his playing takes on more grit and granularity. But, even on the lower-pitched horn, Surman displays a refined elegance that runs counter to what some might expect from baritone sax—that is, rollicking music. Thanks in no small part to Surman’s bandmates, “Chelsea Bridge,” a Billy Strayhorn tune that Surman uses to pay tribute to Duke Ellington’s baritone saxophonist Harry Carney, is just as loose and atmospheric as “Slanted Sky.”
Actually, the same could be said for much of the album, the placidity of which might come as a surprise to those who remember Surman from his work in the early ’70s. Not long after he met DeJohnette, the saxophonist recorded a clutch of well-regarded records for Dawn, a British label that specialized in hippie music. Traces of this era, recently compiled on 2006’s Glancing Backwards: The Dawn Anthology, can be heard on “Haywain.” Although credited to Surman alone, the track has a fully improvised feel, most noticeable in Abercrombie’s uncharacteristic fretwork. The guitarist, who is typically fond of generous chords and long notes, adopts a spidery approach that’s reminiscent of Derek Bailey, a six-stringer who was one of the most important practitioners of the cool British style of free improvisation.
Bailey once said that the British had the “great advantage” of not having created jazz, because it gave them the freedom to play anything. In Bailey’s case, this meant contributing to a new idiom: free improv. But where Surman is concerned, one gets the sense that being British simply means being open to new possibilities. “Going for a Burton,” the title of which is likely a reference to a British ale, skirts several genres at once. Whereas DeJohnette accompanies Surman’s folky motif with a New Orleanian rhythm, Abercrombie turns his gaze to Nashville, coaxing an elegant twang out of a composition that, if undergirded by something other than funk and given different accents, could just as easily be a fiddle tune.
As one might gather from several of the song titles, there’s a certain rustic sensibility embedded in Surman’s music. “Hilltop Dancer,” for example, is just as lively and likely to evoke bucolic imagery as the title implies. And, for the first half at least, “Brewster’s Rooster” is the kind of straightforward blues number that Blue Note used to release on 45. But even that song is too multihued to be called the blues. Once he’s done with the melody, Surman leads the band to a place where cool jazz intersects with psychedelic rock. He must’ve known they could follow him there, because, three-and-a-half decades ago, two of them helped to pave the way.
In 1974, along with Mahavishnu Orchestra keyboardist Jan Hammer, Abercrombie and DeJohnette recorded the first of several collaborations for the German label ECM. Timeless, which culminates with a 12-minute ballad that is equal parts Pink Floyd and Big John Patton, is both an homage to the organ trio tradition and a radical departure from it. In a similar way, Surman’s latest is untraditional music that is steeped in tradition. When interviewed for a short film made to promote Brewster’s Rooster, Surman, who now lives outside of Oslo, spoke about traveling to the United States to collaborate with American musicians. “What better place to record a jazz album than in New York?” he said.
Given Surman’s choice of guitarist and drummer, his quote implies something less than obvious: that perhaps the saxophonist sees no difference between what Harry Carney was doing in Ellington’s band and what Abercrombie and DeJohnette were doing when they recorded Timeless. If that’s the case, Brewster’s Rooster is more of an outlier than it might seem. Granted, aside from the occasional skronk, the album is rather tuneful and approachable. But, in a genre that is contracting rather than expanding, what could be more radical than a musician who sees the entirety of jazz as part of a single lovely continuum?
The John Surman Quartet performs Thursday, Aug. 27, Friday, Aug. 28, and Saturday, Aug. 29, at Blues Alley.