JJ 02/89: John Surman – Private City

First published Jazz Journal, February 1989


Surman’s fourth solo album breaks no new ground but confirms his stature as one of today’s finest improvisers and arrangers, Surman overdubbing his own instrumental lines into position as if fronting a virtuoso combo. The synthesizer he uses sparsely, usually for background colour, but on the concluding Wizzard’s Song, the album’s best track, it provides the percussive cross-rhythms. Many of the other instrumental lines are merely sketches, light shading on an otherwise sparsely covered canvas, but his control of the baritone continues to astonish, achieving a full and solid sound that is never deadweight. On this album, the bass clarinet is given more prominence than before, its fluid lines adding a sense of urgency to the proceedings. At times this is necessary, for some of the pieces threaten cuteness, their folkish charm at times too pastoral for comfort. Yet all the tracks, from the brooding lament of On Hubbard’s Hill to the skittishness of Roundelay, in which the baritone lopes around under a lead soprano line, display an essential seriousness. Beneath their surface ease is an underlying tension, which is what gives this album its plaintive quality, and its power.
Simon Adams

Portrait Of A Romantic; On Hubbard’s Hill; Not Love Perhaps; Levitation; Undernote (23.18) – The Wanderer; Roundelay; The Wizzard’s Song (19.39)
John Surman (bcl/r/ss/bar/syn). Recorded Oslo, Norway, December 1987.
(ECM 1366)