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John Surman: Coruscating

The term “third stream” is an anachronism in 2001. Polyglot music is the norm rather than the exception, and the mixture of classical and jazz is as common as the sun in summer. For almost 40 years, British multireedist John Surman has investigated where Gunther Schuller’s rivers meet, though doing so has led him to be only marginally known in both genres of music. His controlled, often reticent playing probably hasn’t helped him garner attention either, but those with patient ears will be rewarded by a liquid tone touched by classical precision and blessed with just enough jazz grit.

Surman plays several instruments with an equally easy facility and delivery, be it soprano or baritone saxophone, or bass or contrabass clarinet. Even on a tune like “Stone Flower,” which is dedicated to Ellington mainstay Harry Carney, Surman’s baritone-sax playing sounds like that of a gently gliding tenor rather than the hulking and husky instrument it truly is.

Double bassist Chris Laurence is Surman’s primary partner for interplay and improvisation on Coruscating, while the Trans4mation quartet-violinists Rita Manning and Keith Pascoe, violist Bill Hawkes and violoncellist Nick Cooper-provide the harmonic bed for their solos and lead melody lines. Surman wrote all eight tracks, and the album’s chamber-music air is foggy and chilled, with a heavy emphasis on beautiful melancholy. But the lovely Coruscating is nowhere near as gloomy as In Darkness Let Me Dwell, a collection of songs by John Dowland, the 16th-century songwriter who made writing about depression an art form 400 years before Kurt Cobain.

Originally Published