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John Surman: The Spaces in Between

The Spaces in Between is one of John Surman’s periodic exercises in classical music. Only on the opening “Moonlighter,” on which Surman’s baritone sax meanders seductively against Chris Laurence’s loping bass and Trans4mation’s accompaniment, is either the mood or the method jazzy. It’s also the best piece on the disc.

The remainder of Spaces is chamber music. Trans4mation, a string quartet, dominates nearly every track; Surman’s bass clarinet and bari and soprano saxes appear frequently, but play textbook classical lines and flourishes-especially the soprano (“Winter Wish,” “Now See!”), which sounds like an oboe in both timbre and orchestral role.

While Surman undoubtedly knows how to write for these instruments, his writing here is banal. Spaces is structured so that its title track, a violin solo, is in the center of the track sequence, with the first half building toward it and the second descending from it. The first half is pretty but ponderous, filled with clichés of the European repertoire; the livelier second half channels orchestrations that were stylish for film scores in the ’60s and ’80s. “Mimosa,” in particular, strives for an Eastern flavor, but more closely resembles George Martin’s backgrounds for Yellow Submarine.

The centerpiece, however, is excellent, fraught with pathos and tension and masterfully executed by Rita Manning. It’s also difficult in a way that makes the fluffy succeeding track, “Now See!,” much more welcomed than it might otherwise be. It’s an easy maneuver, but a forgivable one, even if Spaces isn’t among Surman’s best work.

Originally Published