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June 2003

John Surman/Jack DeJohnette
Free and Equal
ECM Records

Rarefied intellectual exploration and wholehearted swing are not necessarily incompatible. Take Free and Equal, a partnership between reedman John Surman and pianist/percussionist Jack DeJohnette, augmented by the London Brass. Surman is a dedicated improviser, so it's a bit surprising that he uses as much prewritten material as he does, taking full advantage of the sonorities and skills of the brass ensemble. But these prewritten passages, as often as not, have a nice swing beneath the busy chatter; occasionally, Surman even unabashedly evokes big-band sounds, as in several episodes on "Back and Forth." And the CD's rhythmically unstable music, like the controlled chaos of "Fire"'s opening, mostly yield to imaginative solos that make melodies abstract even as the rhythms stay fairly plain.

On Free and Equal, the assembled musicians make this template invigorating, as on the title track, when the Londoners dig hard into a groove laid down by DeJohnette's drum kit and provide excellent support for freewheeling Surman runs and a fine lead-in for a long, unpredictable, sparkling solo for DeJohnette. There are some times when the sound becomes monotonous and Surman's writing gets a little too detached, as on "Sea Change" or "Debased Line," which are easier to appreciate than to feel. But such lapses are more than compensated for by the novel thrill of medieval horn calls mixing it up with tight yet adventurous improvisations by some of the Londoners on "Back and Forth" or the gorgeous winding melodies melting into one another on "In the Shadow."

This can still be a hard record to get close to, but anyone willing to make some extra effort to get inside Surman's idiom will be well rewarded.

Originally published in June 2003
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