Review: John Surman & Vigleik Storaas




The duo of Surman and Storaas lived up to its promise as one of the highlights of the Brighton Festival: Michael Tucker enjoyed a superb evening's music

This promised to be one of the highlights of the May Brighton Festival, directed by artist David Shrigley. And so it proved to be. The spacious yet welcoming, enfolding space that is the neo-classical St. George's Church in Kemptown has long been one of the most popular "alternative" venues in Brighton. I reckon there were over 500 in the house – including JJ colleague Ian Lomax and some of the south coast's finest musicians such as Julian Nicholas (sax) and Terry Seabrook (p) – for these two rapturously received sets from Surman (pictured right) and the Norwegian pianist Storaas (born 1963). Long domiciled in Oslo with his partner Karin Krog, the ever-amiable and quietly humorous Surman characterised the concert as the highpoint of “a really enjoyable day trip” over to Brighton.

Travelling light, Surman had left both his baritone and bass clarinet at home, concentrating on soprano: recorder and wood flute gave the occasional electronically enhanced yet strongly folk-rinsed atmospheric and textural contrast. In the first set, I missed the depth and breadth of sound I had anticipated, even if Storaas provided plenty of variegated bass register and treble colour to the proceedings. He and Surman go back some way, to the excellent mid-1990s ECM Nordic Quartet album with Krog (v) and Terje Rypdal (elg). Since then, Storaas has continued to develop as a harmonically sensitive player of notable melodic and rhythmic potency: along with many a reviewer, I especially rated his 2012 Epistel nr. 5 album. He and Surman have played the odd concert together in far-flung places, but this was their British debut.

After an opening, elegantly turned and diversely building waltz with Surman on soprano and a following, deeply atmospheric rubato excursion into overtones and pitch bending on either recorder or wooden flute (I couldn't see, precisely, from my position in the audience) Surman volunteered that the first piece had been by Storaas while … the second … had not. Cue laughter and the development of a concert as relaxed and engaging – at one point Surman confided that the next number would be a debut effort, so we could all enjoy the mistakes when they came (they didn't) – as it could be intense and burning, ostinato-pumped or strongly swinging. These latter qualities were more evident in the second set, which had considerably more contrast and muscle than the first, including compelling, foot-stomping versions of the Surman classics Druid's Circle (from the 1994 solo project A Biography Of The Rev. Absalom Dawe) and Going For A Burton (from the 2009 Brewer's Rooster quartet date with Jack DeJohnette among others).

Master that he is, Surman saved the best for last. What, he had been asked since his move from rural Kent to Norway, did he miss the most about England? Surman's answer led to the best reading of the Carmichael/Mercer classic Skylark that I've heard live. Judging from the combination of rapt silence and thunderous applause that greeted this deliciously pitched encore treat, more than a few in the audience shared my feelings. All in all, a superb evening.


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