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John Surman at Seventy

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John Surman, Chris Laurence & Trans4mation Quartet
Kings Place
London Jazz Festival
November 14, 2014

The first Friday of this year's London Jazz festival saw John Surman celebrating his seventieth birthday at Kings Place near King's Cross Station. The venue is about as far as it could get from anyone's idea of the smoky dives so readily associated with jazz. It's calm and relaxed, comfortable and, well, polite—in a good way—and most definitely smoke-free. Its contemporary wood-panelled walls and stage give the hall a rather Scandinavian feel, appropriate, perhaps, given Surman now makes his home in Norway. Jazz is, after all, and always has been an international music.

Surman joined once more with bassist Chris Laurence and the strings of the remarkable Trans4mation Quartet. To describe the project as 'jazz and strings' is akin to suggesting that Duke Ellington made big band music. Accurate maybe but reality is much more beautifully complex than that. The four musicians that make up Trans4mation led by violinist Rita Manning grasp completely Surman's intentions, whilst they in turn seem to stretch his own sense of how this combination might work. For me, Surman is a poet of nature. A composer and musician whose art has a strong sense of place and landscape. That landscape might be that of Devon, the place of his birth, but might also take in Lisbon—"Shadows of Lisbon" with its pictures of a city with one foot in Europe and the other in Latin America—or Turkey—"Lelek Geldi" and its tale of migratory storks in Anatolia. But Surman's music can also make a home in the blues of New Orleans or the urban environments of North America, as in his tribute to the great Harry Carney with "Stone Flower."

A further bonus came in the form of the amazing Australian recorder player Genevieve Lacey. Lacey had commissioned Surman to write for her and to return the favour she flew to London to perform the suite with him and Trans4mation. The recorder never sounded like that when I played it at school. But more than that the way Lacey combined with Surman offered us a master class as her piping recorder contrasted with the lower register of his bass clarinet. This was music that danced and "La Plata," the tango that closed the suite, with sopranino recorder and soprano sax was just a delight with its modulations from major to minor and the distinctively Iberian or Argentine overtones of its melody.

Earlier, the lyricism of "Leaving the Harrow" contrasted with the quiet dissonances of "Moving it On" featuring a fine duet between Surman and cellist Nick Cooper. Chris Laurence's bass was always perfectly poised, precise in its contribution here and in the duo with Surman's baritone on "Hubbub," while the smile on the saxophonist's face during the bassist's solo on "Stone Flower" spoke volumes. This music is about combination and contrast -the way Surman's ney-like soprano weaves through the modal-sounding strings of "Lelek Geldi" or the lovely shift in mood essayed by woodwind, bass and strings towards the end of "An Illusive Shadow." The irony of playing blues—"Blues Urbano"—with a string quartet was certainly not lost on Surman—but it worked but then with this group of musicians how could it fail?

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