What brought me to the Cathedral at 4pm on the last day of Brecon Jazz Festival was the memory of the delightful set John Surman played in 2011 in a marquee on the green of Christ College. At that time I was familiar less with his repertoire than his reputation for constantly reconfiguring his instrumentation. Free jazz in the vein of Ornette Coleman and his collaboration with John McLaughlin from his 60s/early 70s era was all I really knew. It was going to be interesting to see what he would do with the Trans4mation String Quartet. The result then was a riveting blend of free jazz with the subtleties afforded by stringed instruments and a keyboard. That performance turned me into a fan of John Surman.
And now in 2013 John Surman appeared to be a fan of Brecon, the Cathedral as a venue in particular. At the outset of their performance there, the Trio (Surman, double-bassist Chris Laurence and drummer John Marshall) impressed on their audience their feelings of inspiration aroused by the venue and the fine weather that day.
More technically, Surman in Brecon Cathedral may only have had a percussionist and bass player to accompany him but the variety of texture was no less than I remember from two years before. His tones moved from sweet mellow and melodic to breathy rasping staccato phrasing where sometimes it was several minutes into a piece before a melody or a recognisable phrase would take shape. Much contrast then as ‘No Finesse’, an unresolved cyclical piece with a lot of cymbal and loping bass lines followed an exotic classically inspired number reminiscent in places of Grieg’s Hall of the Mountain King. For variation of texture, the concert really got interesting when Surman traded birdlike calls with John Marshall evoking the effects of the seaside as if he were drumming with huge seashells and Chris Laurence sliding a bow across his strings to effect the growls of a large animal. Any misgivings I had initially that a trio comprising sax, bass and drums would have a limited palette of sounds were entirely dispelled by this point.
‘Where Fortune Smiles’ I remember from the 1970 recorded version with keyboard and John McLaughlin on rhythm guitar but I don’t think I would have recognised it had Surman not announced the title beforehand, so different was the treatment with the rhythm section to the fore. The concert came to its climax with ‘No Title’ and ‘Going For A Burton’, numbers with riffs the audience recognised, with more bass drum and shuffling rhythms as if we were being invited to get up and dance in the pews. While getting some very high notes out of his baritone, Surman alternated between baritone and soprano sax which he played with such romantic flavour and delicacy as to keep the textures in a state of flux to both challenge and delight the listener.
Surman is the contemporary saxophone player who best combines the improvisational approach with enchanting melody into a pleasing whole with elegance and subtlety. With ‘Where Fortune Smiles’ still in my aural memory, I left Brecon Cathedral wondering how ‘In a Silent Way’ might have sounded had John McLaughlin taken John Surman with him when he joined Miles Davis.
This concert was recorded for future broadcast on BBC Radio 3’s ‘Jazz Line-Up’.