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John Surman: Manchester, England. June 18, 2012

David McLean By

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John Surman
RNCM
Manchester Jazz Festival
Manchester, England

June 18, 2012

As the lights slowly dimmed, a small and rather unremarkable man made his way onto the stage, in front of a table strewn with saxophones and wind instruments. However, as the audience soon discovered, when this man begins to play something utterly remarkable and unique is channeled. The room was charged with a quiet but detectable energy as John Surman began one of his first solo appearances in the UK in a very long time, a definite highlight of this year's Manchester Jazz Festival.

The first piece was a meditative melody for wooden recorder, which quickly evolved from a spacious and circular melody into a more technical improvisation. Something ancestral and very English was at work in the melodies employed carefully by Surman that brought to mind Stephan Micus; the oaken and aged tone of the recorder conjured images of ritual dances in the deep dark of the English woods. These ancestral sounds were made even more palpable when Surman began to sing through the recorder, together with the melodies played, giving a resoundingly ethereal quality. It set the audience up for a varied program of suites, solo pieces and the odd folk song, a wealth of which was drawn from Saltash Bells (ECM, 2012).

On "Ælfwin," Surman masterfully played the reverb of the RNCM concert hall, demonstrating the full range of his artistry and the multitude of timbres in his saxophone in a lonely, funereal narration that worked beautifully as a solo piece—precisely because this story needed but one narrator. With " On Staddon Heights," spritely synth arpeggios formed the foundations of Surman's lilting yet playful melody.

Experimentations with call-and-response delay were by the far the most virtuosic aspects of the evening's program, invoking saxophonist Ornette Coleman via composer Steve Reich to create richly harmonic tapestries of sound. "Not Love Perhaps," from Private City (ECM, 1988), was given its live debut; the A.S.J. Tessimond poem, intoned by Surman, rolled against more dramatic programming before the reedman burst melodic color across the nostalgic canvas of '80s synth pads. The set climbed to its end with a raucous and bluesy workout on Surman's most recognizable weapon of choice, the baritone saxophone.

Surman's amicable nature, welcoming the audience to his performance right off the bat, made for a humbling as well as musically impressive experience. It is rare to find an artist so comfortable in engaging the audience. With the odd quip about pianist Keith Jarrett (in reference to late audience members), the troubles of speaking the Norwegian language and even getting decent reading glasses, the pressures of a solo performance—and the intensity that sometimes surrounded this—soon evaporated, so that this man's unique talents could be fully enjoyed by all, and visibly, by Surman himself. Another stellar production at the magnificent RNCM.

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