Friday, September 04, 2009

Surman at Birdland

There is something pleasantly unassuming about John Surman’s stage demeanor, which is a bit of contrast to the conspicuously large baritone saxophone he has mastered. Now a resident of Norway, the British jazz musician does not tour America that often, so his engagement at Birdland is a welcome opportunity to hear Surman and his quartet. It is quite a quartet too, including Surman’s prominent ECM labelmates, guitarist John Abercrombie and drummer Jack DeJohnette.

Logically, Surman and company played many tunes from the Brewster’s Rooster, Surman’s recently released CD recorded with the same personnel. Rounding out the quartet is bassist Drew Gress, also an accomplished musician, who made his ECM recording debut on Brewster. In live performance, you can really hear how well the rhythm section locks in, propelling the music with their steady groove. Surman clearly enjoyed both their musical support and their company, frequently kidding Abercrombie about a recent review that described him as “harmonically restless.” (It was intended as a compliment.)

As on Brewster, Surman the consummate baritone saxophonist, also mixed in some soprano, playing the small horn on three tunes during Thursday’s first set. Indeed, Surman has a beautiful sound on the soprano, which contrasts nicely with his powerful baritone voice. His live rendition of the soprano feature “Slanted Sky” was somewhat more up-tempo and jazz club friendly than the Brewster take, while “Counter Measures” had a similarly spritely vibe, making it an effective set closer. Again, Surman amply demonstrated his remarkable facility for bop lines on the demanding bari with brisk swingers like “Hilltop Dancer.”

Despite the fact that all four members of the Surman Quartet are comfortable with adventurous musical challenges, their Birdland set was very much a swinging affair that had the near capacity crowd cheering with enthusiasm. It is a treat to hear musicians of their caliber stretch out on Surman’s invigorating compositions and it is a relative bargain to hear three major jazz figures for the price of one. They are a great live band, highly recommended to all jazz listeners, especially those who love that rich bari sound. The Surman Quartet plays through Saturday night at Birdland, while Surman’s Brewster is now available on ECM Records. (Also note, Abercrombie will return to Birdland with his own group, including violinist Mark Feldman, at the end of the month to celebrate the release of his latest ECM CD, Wait Till You See Her.)