John Surman: Free and Equal (2003)
ECM's jazz releases have attempted to bridge the gap between the refinement of classical music and the spontaneity of improvisation. Some efforts have been more successful than others, particularly when undertaken by musicians who have tried to rectify these concepts within their own musical careers. John Surman is such a musician, adding a long affiliation with big band music to the mix. Since the '60s, Surman has been a fixture in large format groups like the orchestras of Mike Gibbs, Mike Westbrook, and Vaclav Zahradnik, Chris McGregor's cooperative Brotherhood of Breath, as well as his own early records featuring myriad English brass players.
His new album, Free and Equal, is another logical step in his career. He has combined the long tradition of military bands so crucial to the development of jazz in Europe with his long-standing association with drummer Jack DeJohnette. The result, a successful fusion of these two elements, is a stunning recording inspired by the United Nations 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Surman's improvisational skills have never been in question. Free and Equal presents his compositional skills on an equal footing. His work with John Warren for the Brass Project, as well as his virtuosity on three distinct reed instruments, has fully prepared him to create a compelling work for himself, DeJohnette on drums and piano, and the ten-piece London Brass. The nine sections of Free and Equal liberally mix strictly composed segments with plenty of room for improvisation by himself (as the principal soloist), plus trombonist Richard Edwards, trumpeter John Barclay and horn player Richard Bissell.
This live recording from June 2001 differs from last year's duo recording with DeJohnette, Invisible Nature. Where as the latter relied upon electronics (a favorite motif of Surman and DeJohnette), the new album is purely acoustic, deriving its grandeur from Surman's majestic writing. He takes plenty of stirring solos, including one baritone solo in particular on the album's centerpiece "Back and Forth."
Free and Equal succeeds on many levels: satisfying a jazz desire for solos, a classical want for continuity and beauty, and a wider appreciation for sustained creativity and force.
Note: this review originally appeared in All About Jazz: New York .
Track Listing: 1. Preamble 2. Groundwork 3. Sea Change 4. Back and Forth 5. Fire 6. Debased Line