Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

At Home Abroad

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

At Home Abroad

Article excerpt

The saxophones that most people find beguiling are the tenor and alto instruments. In the hands of someone' like Ben Webster, the tenor sax became a weapon of mass seduction, all breathy persuasion and huffing melody. The other members of the family, the baritone and soprano, are opposite ends of the scale in more ways than one. The baritone is big, ungainly and flatulent; the soprano - can be-thin and reedy and Often flies out of tune. John Surman, the rubicund man of Devon who has been among the most dependable fixtures in British jazz for three decades, has specialised in both of them and made them forget their characters. He gets a sonorous melancholy out of the big horn, which can transform itself into an urgent wail when he pushes into a false register, and the soprano he casts as a clarion instrument, more like a pan piper's reed than the severe metal sound that is its norm. Fittingly enough, the second half of his career has been a journey into rarefied areas that seem remote from his British jazz roots.

It's a propitious moment to reconsider his long and thoughtful career, since some of his earliest discs - for Deram, the pop-psychedelic-progressive offshoot of Decca in the 1960s - have reappeared after many years in limbo. The earliest, John Surman, is split between then-fashionable calypso jazz and three tracks for a big, sometimes overblown ensemble of 11. That second strain is carried on through both How Many Clouds Can You See? and Tales of the Algonquin, where crowded structures jostle around the different soloists to varying effect. Frankly, much of the music feels as dated as most of the pop of the same era. Surman was used to open-ended improvising in the post-Coltrane manner, and he Seems entombed some of the time. There are worthy cameos from some of his contemporaries, but it's really only his playing that carries the weight of something memorable beyond the language of the time, and the British fondness for suites -a toothache brought on by too many festival commissions - isn't to anyone's advantage. …

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