Last weekend we marked the opening of the 2014 London Jazz Festival by attending concerts by two jazz greats: John Surman, celebrating his seventieth year, and Abdullah Ibrahim, now in his 80th year.

On Friday evening, while upstairs Guardian journalists were beavering away producing the next day’s newspaper, we were at the elegant new(ish) venue King’s Place, just behind King’s Cross station, to see saxophonist John Surman perform with Trans4mation, the terrific string quartet that he has been writing for and  recording and performing with for some fifteen years.

Surman is one of those artists for whom the label ‘jazz’ is insufficient.  Recording for Manfred Eicher’s ECM label since the 1970s, he is the quintessential contemporary musician, composing and performing music that has ranged freely, drawing upon jazz, folk, choral and medieval plainsong. The first album he recorded with Trans4mation was called Coruscating and ‘flashing brightly’ perfectly describes the music he plays.

In a lengthy career, Surman has collaborated with a wide range of jazz musicians, and produced suites of music that have featured his saxophone in unusual contexts; for example, with church organ and choir (Proverbs and Songs); with Trans4mation (Coruscating and The Spaces in Between); with the London Brass and Jack DeJohnette (Free and Equal); with Tunisian oud-player Anouar Brahem and bassist Dave Holland (Thimar); as well as creating settings of songs by English Renaissance composer John Dowland for John Potter on three separate albums. His beautiful solo albums that blend acoustic and electronic music – Road to St Ives, A Biography of the Rev. Absalom Dawe, Private City, and Saltash Bells – are amongst the most-played in our house.

Explaining his musical eclecticism, Surman told an interviewer for Australian radio in 2009:

When I grew up in Plymouth, in the West Country, I didn’t really hear any jazz music until I suppose I was about 13 or 14, and my background really is in listening to what used to be called the Third Programme in England: very pompous and very sort of formal, but it was mostly classical music, that’s what my folks listened to, and I sort of grew up with that, and my first really—I mean I sang as a choirboy, so I did a lot of Handel and I had this sort of solo voice, and it was very nice, which you wouldn’t know if you heard my singing voice now. And so I grew up with a different kind of music. Then when my voice changed I found jazz, and I bought a clarinet and started to play jazz. So as the years have rolled on, I suppose my earlier interests have surfaced through the medium of learning to improvise through jazz, I guess.

The Friday evening gig exemplified his skill in composing for instruments other than his own, and his success in collaborating with musicians from traditions beyond the usual range of the jazz repertoire. In the first set he played with Trans4mation – who comprise Rita Manning (first violin), Patrick Kiernan (violin), Bill Hawkes (viola) and Nick Cooper (cello) – joined by Chris Laurence on double bass to form a string quintet. In the second set we were treated to the European première of Three Landscapes, a suite written by Surman for the virtuoso Australian recorder player Genevieve Lacey.


Chris Laurence (left) with Trans4mation and John Surman

On the ECM website, John Surman talks about his collaboration with Trans4mation:

The music has been developed simply through playing. We’ve played together a lot now, and as we’ve progressed the string quartet has become much more integrated into the improvisational process too. The project has become looser in performance than it was when we started out, and it also feels much more like a band, a complete entity. I’ve learned that there are many more possibilities than I first imagined, and gained more confidence both in what I can write for the strings and in what I can leave to the players’ imaginations.

They began with two pieces – ‘Leaving the Harrow’ (from The Spaces In Between), which segued into an unfamiliar piece called ‘Move It On’. Introducing the pieces, Surman suggested that we should imagine a specific scene.  When he lived on the North Downs there was a pub called The Harrow that he used to frequent. Leaving the Harrow after a few pints, it would be about an hour’s walk back home. he asked us to imagine walking home on a beautiful evening in late summer, a harvest moon rising and bats fluttering in the sky. The companion piece, he suggested, was about waking up the following morning and realising you’d had one too many.

That was followed by ‘Hubbub’, also from The Spaces In Between, on which, following an opening prelude on the strings, Surman entered jauntily on baritone sax.  Introducing ‘Illusive Shadow’, John asked the audience to imagine a ‘memory box’ in a dusty attic. But, if that image didn’t do much for us, we should ‘just listen to the music!’ The piece opened with twittering, fluttering, birdlike sounds in the saxophone and double bass parts, soon joined by the quartet which added to the twitching and muttering before developing rich and vibrant melodies. The first set closed with ‘Leylek Geldi’, a piece that drew upon Turkish melodies and inspired, Surman informed us, by memories of being in Turkey at this time of year when the cranes return and build their sprawling nests on lamp posts and rooftops.

Recorder player Genevieve Lacey

Genevieve Lacey

The second set opened with the European première of ‘Three Landscapes’, written by Surman for the virtuoso Australian recorder player Genevieve Lacey, who had insisted on flying in to perform it.  It consisted of three pieces – ‘Stone River’, ‘Shepherd´s Song’ and ‘La Plata’. For ‘Shepherd´s Song’ Lacey picked up the diminutive sopranino recorder which I had only heard played previously in a Vivaldi concerto. Lacey’s performance was a spell-binding one.

After Lacey had found her way off the stage by the cleverly disguised exit, Surman and the quintet continued with a superb blues, ‘Blues Urbano’, and ‘Stone Flower’, his tribute to late baritone sax player Harry Carney. ‘Lisboa Shadow’ followed, inspired by John’s love for the winding alleys of Lisbon and the sound of fado.  The set concluded with ‘Far Away’ and ‘All Together Now’, with Genevieve Lacey returning to the stage.

John Surman and Trans4mation: Wayfarers All (from The Spaces In Between)

The following night at the Royal Festival Hall we saw another giant of the international jazz scene – the South African pianist Abdullah Ibrahim, a month on from his 80th birthday.  Unfortunately, our enjoyment of this concert was ruined by the fact that from our balcony seats we were unable to see either Ibrahim, or most of the other performers at all during the entire performance.

Abdullah Ibrahim at the Royal Festival Hall

The man we couldn’t see: Abdullah Ibrahim

The first set was performed by Ibrahim’s new trio – Cleave Guyton (clarinet/flute) and Noah Jackson (cello/bass) and Ibrahim himself, who began with one of his long meandering solo excursions in which he picks out several of his landmark compositions, teasingly exploring the theme for a few bars and then striding on. Passages of soft delicacy, in which Ibrahim barely brushes the keys, are punctuated with outbursts of percussive African rhythms. After 25 minutes or so, he was joined by cello and flute for pieces which included ‘African Market’, ‘The Wedding’ and ‘Duke 88’.

Introducing the show, a local radio presenter had informed us that in the second half Ibrahim would be joined by the new incarnation of Ekaya, his magnificent 1980s group that featured alto saxophonist Carlos Ward and tenor saxophonist Ricky Ford; this, we were promised, would be ‘get up and dance township music’. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Abdullah Ibrahim with Ekaya at the Royal Festival Hall

Abdullah Ibrahim with Ekaya at the Royal Festival Hall

The new Ekaya included Laurence Bryant on tenor sax, Marshall McDonald on baritone sax, Andrae Murchison on trombone, and Will Terrill at the drums. The set undoubtedly featured some fine musicianship, with  Andrae Murchison’s contribution on trombone being especially noteworthy. But dance-inducing it was not.  The overall sound was reminiscent of Ibrahim’s mentor and patron, Duke Ellington, though Ibrahim barely made any contribution at the piano throughout the second half.  I think John Fordham nailed it in a review of this outfit’s album Sotho Blue for the Guardian a few years back:

The great South African pianist/composer Abdullah Ibrahim has often seemed to consign his enduring themes to glass cases in recent times, imparting to them an untouchably meditative solemnity. This session for the latest edition of Ibrahim’s Ekaya band features classic originals like The Wedding and The Mountain, expressed in luxuriously deep-toned sax-and-trombone arrangements, developed in successions of individual solos that rarely accelerate past walking pace.

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