Neglected masterpieces: John Surman’s Stranger than Fiction

Just occasionally, a jazz album comes along that stands outside of its time, and becomes a classic. Miles Davis’ 1959 recording, Kind of Blue, Charles Mingus’ Ah Um, John Coltrane’s Blue Train; the list goes on. More often, perhaps, albums are released that as equally as timeless, yet somehow fail to attract the acclaim and the status that they might deserve.

Album artStranger than Fiction, by British saxophonist John Surman, is a wonderfully lyrical and expressive album on which the pieces display the trademark organic, melodic improvisational skills of Surman, matched by some beautiful exploratory playing from pianist John Taylor, whose careful attention to balance and texture recalls some of Morton Feldman’s piano pieces. There’s some understated support from bassist Chris Laurence, and delicate drumming from John Marshall.

The wonderful climbing line that opens ‘Tess,’ or the asymmetrical shifting patterns of the accompaniment which opens ‘Moonshine Dancer’ show the evocative colours that the group can weave; the mood is contemplative, almost spiritual, and the album never puts a foot wrong. No gesture is wasted, no phrase surplus to requirements: deft yet sure, the players are working together seamlessly yet creating plenty of space for one another.

Here’s ‘Moonshine Dancer;’

Released in 2007 on the ECM label, home of such artists as Keith Jarrett, Jan Garbarek, Marcin Wasilewski and other greats, the album is presented in the hallmark ECM style, monochromatic colours with no textural clutter and expressionist cover photography.

Inventive, expressive, and timeless. Listen for yourself to extracts from the album on Amazon here: you won’t be disappointed.

4 thoughts on “Neglected masterpieces: John Surman’s Stranger than Fiction”

  1. At last. A decent review recognising this collaboration. I like the comparisons with Miles and Mingus, though this isn’t such a stable group as Miles’, there the Mingus workshop comradeship among this musicians whose timelines interweave. Stranger Than Fiction is among ECM’s finest and I include Jarrett in that claim. The simple, understated ‘Across The Bridge’, is my stand out track. The musicians enter the stage one by one: Taylor, lays the tablecloth; then Surman’s gentle bass clarinet – a whale shark of an instrument – the cutlery; John Marshall, brings in pots & pans. Finally Chris Laurence comes into the room and they take their place at the table. Whilst each listener will find their own jewel, finally the album can be enjoyed holistically. And to that end the difference between the affiliation to works by Miles and Mingus is strain. Since those fine groups – almost jazz collegiate schools, think also of Tristano and Konitz; rites of passage – produced series of fine tunes. This album feels seamless. An absolute cracker of an album.

  2. Re my first post. The garbled point I was trying to make is that as with Mingus so with Surman’s collaborative projects; there is a nucleus of stability among personnel. So whilst not a standing quartet in the sense we may speak of various standing trios of Bill Evans or Keith Jarrett, these musicians know each other’s work and values intimately. Worth contrasting the wilfully peripatetic Lee Konitz who never had a standing quartet.
    I apologize for muddling the point first time round.

  3. I’ve been re-listening heavily recently. Worth noting that the haunting Canticle With Response alludes to Surman’s youth as a chorister. It also points many years forward to Proverbs And Songs, again with John Taylor, this time on the organ of Salisbury Cathedral. ICYI Surman features on a recent release, Dusk Till Dawn, with Norwegian bassist Terje Gewelt and Swedish pianist Erlend Slettevoll. A beautiful album with Surman on reeds and wind.

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