John Surman and Jack DeJohnette plus Donny McCaslin Quartet (above)/ Ronnie Scott’s – 6th May 2009
After several years of absence from Ronnie Scott’s , John Surman was clearly in the mood to celebrate last night. It felt like a homecoming. From the moment he took the stand, vivid memories of his time at the club in 1960’s were flooding back. Surman recalled that he had first been introduced to DeJohnette- who had been playing at Frith Street in 1968 as part of the Bill Evans Trio – by drummer John Marshall, who was also in the enthusiastic audience which filled the club last night.
Surman also recalled that his early friendship with DeJohnette had been based on their both being reduced to helpless laughter by the Goon Show. The habit has stuck : DeJohnette obliged Surman, and the audience, with a Goon Show impression, right on cue.
The 1960’s were then, and this….is now. These days Surman and DeJohnette are grand masters in their mid-to-late sixties, completely at home in a vast range of different influences and sound worlds. DeJohnette has just won a Grammy in the “New Age” category. Yet they are still exploring. The first set opened gently with “Mysterium”, Surman on penny whistle and then soprano sax, accompanied by looped sounds controlled by the “third man,” offstage sound engineer Ben Surman. In the second number, an improvisation on baritone sax involving punchy blues licks, fast scales and circular breathing things hotted up. By the end of this number, Surman was reaching for his bottle of water and his white towel.
Then, switching to EWI for Ganges Groove, Surman was more restrained. In the opening minutes, he stayed solidly within the confines of a perfect fifth- some act of will on an eight octave instrument. The vibe went effortlessly from Township to Irish Uillean pipes, complete with drone. Mesmerising.
Surman bounced onto the stand after the interval with an “I’m thrilled to be back.” Cue more sixties memories- he promptly launched into a medley of Ronnie Scott jokes. Both players started to open out more, the dialogue became more upbeat and insistent. The audience, replete with musicians, responded in kind. A highlight was “Song for World Forgiveness” , with DeJohnette switching to piano, and Surman delivering- as ever – rhythmic punch on a low arpeggiated line on bass clarinet.
This endlessly fascinating dialogue between two master musicians was indeed something to celebrate.
Amid all these homecomings and rejoicings, the support band for the night risked being in the shadow. But tenor saxophonist Donny McCaslin’s quartet proved a highly impressive unit, chock-full of energy and inventiveness. Their first set was very well received by a growing and increasingly appreciative audience. They too launched into their second set with batteries re-charged. In “Recommended Tools,” a McCaslin compostion, bassist Michael Janisch was melodic, clear and utterly persuasive.
Donny McCaslin , who had impressed no end in Dave Douglas’ quintet at Cheltenham, is a clever and subtle player and composer. He gets unimaginable variety out of the 4/4 bar. He also has conceived a variety of online teaching materials. He looks very young, plus he has a limitless restless energy when he plays…. which makes it very hard to believe that he is in fact five years older than the better-known Chris Potter, a player from the same school of tenor-playing who occupies a similar role in the equally stellar Dave Holland Quintet.
It was particularly good to hear Dave Smith showing that his uniquely youthful professional energy is totaly in place in the context of a band of slightly older musicians such as McCaslin, guitarist Phil Robson and Michael Janisch on bass.
A highlight of the first set was McCaslin’s “Madonna.” Phil Robson‘s way of delivering accompanying backings to a tune was a marvel of clarity, simplicity and beauty.
The superb work which Janisch does to connect and cross-fertilize the younger UK and US scenes is only just beginning to get noticed.