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"Proverbs And Songs" by John Surman, Howard Moody and the Ultime Thule Choir at the 2009 Nordlysfestivalen, Tromso, Norway

Mark Sabbatini By

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The choral music is basically written, so you just do it. The challenge is to get used to lunatics like Howard and me who don't stick to what's written. —John Surman
John Surman, Howard Moody, John Taylor, Ultime Thule Choir
Nordlysfestivalen, Ishavskatedralen (Arctic Cathedral)
Tromso, Norway
January 23-31, 2009




It's been a couple of years since saxophonist John Surman performed his Proverbs And Songs suite. But judging from what he wrung from it after four days' rehearsal with an amateur choir north of the Arctic Circle, his spiritual side seems intact.

Surman reunited with Howard Moody and John Taylor, switching their respective roles as conductor and organist from the original 1996 performance, for a mid-winter concert during the opening weekend of Nordlysfestivalen 2009 in Tromso, Norway. Playing in the notorious triangular Ishavskatedralen (Arctic Cathedral) with the 30-member Ultime Thule Choir, they captured the essentials of the lush Old Testament text while adding fresh embellishments of ruggedly dense free jazz.

The choir, a mix of veterans and newcomers, couldn't be expected to match the depth and harmonization of the original's 75-member Salisbury Festival Chorus, especially given some mixing challenges in the cathedral's less-than-acoustically-perfect vastness. But their accuracy was faithful, and a recording of the original can't supply the ambiance of stained glass reflections dancing in the background and Moody at the keys of a 2940-pipe organ with bellows made from reindeer hide.

The rehearsal time was "a bit short," and the amateur status of the choir limited the variations he could ask of them, Surman said in an interview afterward. But working with different ensembles over the years allows quick adaptations.

"The choral music is basically written, so you just do it," he said. "The challenge is to get used to lunatics like Howard and me who don't stick to what's written."

Also, arranging the Salisbury performance was hardly a meticulous affair.

Surman was commissioned, by the Salisbury Festival, to write Proverbs And Songs whose chorus consists of professionals and amateurs ranging in age from 13 to 70, with only one full rehearsal before the performance. A visit to an England church Surman hadn't seen since he was a choirboy inspired him to use the King James Bible for lyrics and pipe organ for instrumentation, although Taylor wasn't a trained cathedral organist.

Alyn Shipton, in a review for the The Times in London, wrote: " ...his unaccompanied choral writing was rich and unusual and elsewhere the the sense of jazz rhythm and forward motion came almost exclusively from his saxophone, creating rich ostinatos, or swirling aggressively among the choral parts." Acclaim isn't universal—the All-Music Guide gives the album recorded by the BBC a 2 1/2-star rating.

In Tromso, the choir began rehearsing on their own in January before Surman arrived for the practices and a midweek preview concert before an audience of 250 Arctic research scientists attending a convention. At the opening of the Nordlysfestivalen performance, the choir took their places at the alter, followed by Surman walking slowly into the nave while playing a bright baritone that rang like the approach of a turbulent dawn. His unaccompanied "Prelude" was joined, as he neared the front, by an emergence of ambient chords from Moody, then the choir reciting the names of "The Sons" of the Old Testament prophets.

For the next hour they kept a near-capacity audience of about 350 people rapt with musical sermons of sin and redemption, from the exchange of simple luscious hooks between Surman and the choir on "The Kings" to the frenetic discordant note improvisations between Moody and Surman on "Job." The subdued and moderate segments were the most successful, as the choir tended to be drowned out by the louder instrumentals, which themselves sometimes lost clarity and took on a grating quality somewhere along their trip through the sound system. Surman—daring as ever with his blistering and leaping explorations on baritone and soprano saxophones and bass clarinet— got the worst of it, as the organ's volume generally prevailed when in competition.

Those moments were relatively few and scattered, however, with the lyrics and atmospheric interactions intelligible and stirring even to those in the back row. A brief reprisal of the concluding "Abraham Arise!" for the encore was more of a flourish, but by then the audience was sufficiently inspired to reward the performers with a standing ovation.

Ann Elise, a lifelong Tromsø resident who called the concert one of the two most notable during her seven years with the choir, said the complexity of the composition and the tendency of the instrumentalists to improvise on it were demanding but also fitting for a festival whose theme this year is "dialogue" between cultures.

"The combination of the jazz and the choir is very rare," said Lodve Suare, a first-time performer with the choir, adding "I just had to ask if I could join" after learning about the concert.

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