(Queen Elizabeth Hall, London Jazz Festival, November 18th 2009, review by Patrick Hadfield)
The celebration of John Surman ’s 65 years was a gig of two halves. Surman played support to his own quartet, opening with a couple of solo numbers on soprano saxophone and bass clarinet, accompanied by a variety of electronics. His bass clarinet had a lovely, rich tone, and his gadgets allowed him to double and triple-track so that he was accompanying himself, creating instrumental choir effects. Other bits of electronica added less for me, providing rhythmic but apparently random patterns which distracted from Surman’s playing.
He was then joined by long-time collaborator Karin Krog on vocals. They played a charming suite of Norwegian folk songs before Surman moved to the piano for a version of “God Bless the Child”.
The second half featured the quartet featured on Surman’s latest record, Brewster’s Rooster, the ECM supergroup with Jack DeJohnette on drums, John Abercrombie on guitar, and Drew Gress on bass. They were on fire. Surman was playing with a vengeance on both baritone and soprano sax, and DeJohnette just made it look so easy: in a festival where the quality of drummers has been outstanding, his playing during the faster numbers was superlative.
DeJohnette was excellent through most of the set, but to my ears he played with the same intensity during the quieter numbers, too – a sumptuous version of Chelsea Bridge featuring Surman’s wonderfully emotive baritone could have benefited from a softer attack.
For the rest of the time, though, the quartet worked together really well. There was clearly a lot of empathy between all the musicians. They played a long, energetic set – and it must take a lot of breath to play the baritone saxophone with that power and energy for that long. Surman wasn’t slacking on the soprano, either, pouring out notes at a frenetic pace.
This was great music in celebration of one of Britain’s great jazz talents.