Review: Tomasz Stanko/John Surman at Barbican

Tomasz Stanko New York Quartet at the Barbican
Photo Credit: Roger Thomas. All Rights Reserved


Tomasz Stańko/John Surman
(Barbican, Wednesday 15 May. Review by Chris Parker)


‘Haunting melancholy mingled with a kind of fragile effervescence, and a canon of delicately (and some eerily) beautiful themes’ was the Barbican programme sheet’s description of the music of Polish trumpeter Tomasz Stańko, but it might, just as aptly, have been applied to the solo sound produced in the first half of this concert by Stańko’s ECM labelmate, John Surman.

The Devonian multi-instrumentalist has been fusing folk and classical with ecclesiastical vocal music and jazz-based improvisation to produce personal meditations on bucolic themes (generally centred on his West Country roots) since recording the multi-tracked solo album Westering Home over 40 years ago, and though he started this hour-long set with a soprano-saxophone improvisation on a piece, ‘Sailing Westward’, from his latest album in this mode, Saltash Bells, Surman seemed keener to range between and demonstrate the artistic capabilities of the various instruments he plays than simply to reproduce the latter (award-winning) set.

He thus moved straight from soprano to baritone, then to bass clarinet (with occasional use of pre-recorded tapes containing lilting synthesiser backing), enabling him to explore not only his own trademark Cornish/Devonian territory, but also Norwegian folk music (a plangent cattle call) and – a rousing finale – the blues (a form Surman did not hear until his mid-teens), performed with an affecting mix of gruff earnestness and controlled vigour on baritone. Although it’s always a slight shock, for those who remember Surman’s barn-storming 1960s/1970s work with the likes of Mike Westbrook and SOS, to hear him in what might be termed ‘ECM mode’, it shouldn’t be: Surman’s musical roots (and if ECM has a philosophy, it must surely involve allowing musicians to explore these rather than following transatlantic models of jazz) are as firmly planted in the choral works he performed as a child (Elgar, Bach, Beethoven) and in the folk music he grew up with as they are in improvised jazz.

Tomasz Stańko, like Surman, has roots in classical music (he learned violin and piano as a child, and his father was a professional violinist), but he has, since taking up the trumpet at 17, also thoroughly immersed himself in jazz (initially the music of Chet Baker and Miles Davis, but subsequently branching out into freer music with Globe Unity Orchestra and Edward Vesala, then – crucially – coming under the spell of fellow Pole, composer Krzysztof Komeda), so his current mature style is a unique amalgam of all these influences, balancing freedom with structure, and mixing the improvisatory spirit of jazz with more overtly formal approaches.

His latest band, Cuban pianist David Virelles, bassist Thomas Morgan and drummer Gerald Cleaver, might have been specially created to aid him in this endeavour, adept as they are in straddling the amorphous border between abstraction and form, exploring Stańko’s hauntingly wistful, melancholic themes with appropriate circumspection, stretching them to their limits while never quite losing their central thread.

Such (mixed) metaphors are peculiarly apt to describe Stańko’s music, which – as John Fordham pointed out in the aforementioned programme sheet – ‘unleash[es] powerful emotions by oblique means’; with Cleaver rustling and crackling beneath Morgan’s adventurous bass, and Virelles apparently able to take apart Stańko’s broodingly lyrical themes and examine them at leisure without compromising their integrity one whit, this was a typically affecting, intriguing – if occasionally demanding – performance from a genuine original with an utterly distinctive sound and approach.

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