John Surman - Wigmore Hall, Saturday 24 Nov - London Jazz Festival

Anyone looking for an ECM-signed saxophonist to deliver a London Jazz Festival set of sparse, near-spiritual splendour would no doubt have attended Jan Garbarek’s Royal Festival Hall show earlier in the week – and they would no doubt have left highly disappointed, as reviews on this site attest.

This set by fellow ECM saxman John Surman at the somewhat smaller Wigmore Hall, was a more low-key affair, yet it delivered everything lacking in the Norwegian’s performance. An exercise in subtlety and restraint, it was as evocative and deeply moving as anything this reviewer has seen all year. John Surman - Wigmore Hall, Saturday 24 Nov - London Jazz Festival
Along with double bassist Chris Laurence, companion of three decades’ standing, Surman was joined only by the string quartet who first appeared on his 1999 album, Coruscating. Benefiting from that lengthy gestation period, the strings were deeply embedded in the collective sound, Laurence acting as a bridge between them and Surman’s baritone or soprano. Together they created a kind of jazz chamber music that epitomised Surman’s trademark mix of jazz and contemporary classical.

The room also impressed acoustically as well as visually, allowing all instruments except double bass to play without amplification. The resulting sense of intimacy was particularly acute on Rita Manning’s solo violin rendition of The Spaces In Between, taken from their recent album of the same name. The title doubles as a one-line manifesto for Surman’s considered, economical style, though there’s considerable passion at play too, evident in his physical writhing as well as warm inter-song banter.
Ambitious closing piece Now Sing was the weakest number of the night, the fast-paced and highly exposed polyrhythms occasionally drifting from absolute unison. Yet it’s small complaint against a show of such calibre from a man was doing this jazz-with-strings lark while Basquiat Strings and Portico Quartet were still in short trousers.         

Marcus O’Dair 

The Write Stuff

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