Thursday, October 11, 2007

The Spaces In Between

The Spaces In Between
By John Surman
ECM 1956

There is a long tradition of jazz and classical double threats, stretching back to Benny Goodman, who was never known to be intimidated by a clarinet concerto. Coming from a diverse jazz background, including jazz-rock and adventurous big band sessions, John Surman has also composed for classical idioms as well, including his latest collaboration with the Trans4mation string quartet, The Spaces In Between.

The final selection of Spaces, “Leaving the Harrow,” illuminates the pastoral spirit of the session best. Surman describes the inspiration for the composition, a local pub named the Harrow in rural Kent. According to Surman: “the idea for the piece came from leaving there—possibly buoyed up with a couple pints of best bitter—walking home on a beautiful evening in harvest time and the harvest moon was enormous.”

It starts with more of a nocturne, “Moonlighter,” appropriately featuring Surman’s baritone cradled by the string arrangement. There is a distinctly and traditionally English flavor to many of Surman’s compositions, as in “Wayfarers All,” which gives a darker hue to the strings before Surman comes in on Soprano.

Spaces is tightly arranged, but there is some, well, space for individual expression. While there is not a traditional rhythm section, Surman enlisted the talents of bassist Chris Laurence, proficient in both jazz and classical idioms, to maintain a propulsive element and lend his jazz sensibilities to the endeavor.

The title composition is an unaccompanied solo feature for violinist Rita Manning, coming appropriately at the midpoint of Spaces. An austere, challenging piece that does indeed make use of space, “In Between” is the longest composition of the session. It is followed by he shortest, “Now See!,” a spritely English jig of a miniature.

“Mimosa” is the only expression of Surman’s exploration of Eastern music. Originally written for, but not recorded by, his “Thimar” combo, it still gets a nocturnal vibe from Surman’s baritone but the rhythmic arrangement for the strings suggests someplace east of Kent. Spaces concludes with “Leaving the Harrow,” a contemplative vehicle, again for baritone.

Throughout Spaces, Surman’s reeds integrate remarkably well with the strings. The lush combination of baritone and strings is a particularly warm sound that makes one wonder why bari features have not been more popular in classical music. Its unhurried thoughtfulness conveys the pastoral experience to its listeners quite effectively.