Thursday, August 27, 2009

John Surman: Brewster’s Rooster

Brewster’s Rooster
By John Surman
ECM Records 2046

British jazz multi-instrumentalist John Surman has pretty much done it all. Early in his career he performed with British blues rocker Alex Korner (as did a fellow named Jagger). He would quickly become one of Britain’s top jazz artists, displaying a thirst for new challenges, including collaborations with traditional Middle Eastern musician Anouar Brahem, modal-avant-garde experiments with his own groups, and composing for Carolyn Carlson’s dance troupe while they were in residence at the Paris Opera. All the while, he maintained his stature as one of jazz’s preeminent baritone saxophonists. Now Surman further enhances that reputation with his latest recording, Brewster’s Rooster.

In an occasional change-up Surman (the great baritonist) also throws a little soprano sax into the mix on two tracks, giving the set a very pleasing contrast of sounds. The first instance is actually the opening “Slanted Sky,” which is light and airy, yet thoughtfully meditative. It is also an excellent example of the finely tuned rapport within the quartet, resulting from the frequent pairings of Surman, drummer Jack DeJohnette, and guitarist John Abercrombie in various configurations and groups, often recorded on the ECM label. Rounding out the quartet is bassist Drew Gress, whose credits include the likes of Fred Hersh, Ravi Coltrane, and even Phyllis Diller (a gig’s a gig, after all).

The following “Hilltop Dancer” is a catchy, slightly Latin workout that amply displays Surman’s facility on the baritone, which for many is an unforgiving horn at brisker tempos. While “No Finesse” (which seems inappropriately named) starts at a more relaxed pace, it swings forcefully, building nicely into eloquent solos from the leader and Abercrombie.

As Brewster’s single traditional standard, Billy Strayhorn’s “Chelsea Bridge” is the kind of lush, languid vehicle often chosen to showcase the baritone. With his sensitive but commanding interpretation, Surman demonstrates a mastery of the language of the jazz ballad. It is followed by the relatively abstract “Haywain” and then a palette-cleansing return to the soprano with the spritely swinger “Counter Measures.” The quartet closes out with the surprisingly groovy title track, propelled by DeJohnette’s funky backbeat rhythm, and the emphatically boppish closer, “Going for a Burton.”

Truly, Brewster is about as jazz as jazz gets. It is a well-balanced program, featuring some sparkling original compositions from Surman and inspired playing by the entire quartet. Those on the East Coast will soon have an opportunity to hear the Surman Quartet live. They begin a three night engagement in Washington D.C. at Blues Alley tonight (8/27), and will play New York’s Birdland next Tuesday (9/1) through Saturday (9/5).