London Jazz Festival – Uri Caine & John Surman

The Weather Forecast [World premiere]
In All Weathers
Code Blue [BBC Radio 3 commission: World premiere]
The Road to St Ives

Uri Caine (piano)

John Surman (alto, tenor & baritone saxophones; bass clarinet; piccolo)

Drew Gress (bass)

Ben Perowsky (drums)

BBC Concert Orchestra
Robert Ziegler

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 20 November, 2005
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

The London Jazz Festival always has its interesting and unexpected collaborations – none more so this year than the coming-together of New York pianist Uri Caine and the West Country saxophonist John Surman, in a programme of self-penned works both established, revamped and newly commissioned.

Introducing the first half, Surman pointed out that this was the first occasion on which and Caine had found themselves sharing a platform: hence their decision to open the evening with a relatively brief but engaging workout for bass clarinet and piano called The Weather Forecast – itself an apt entrée into Surman’s In All Weathers, in which the influence of Thomas Hardy is felt in the music’s rhapsodic journey through a sequence of predominantly sombre episodes; such as perhaps evoke passages in the Dorset author’s Wessex novels or certain of his later poems. Switching between alto and tenor saxes, Surman’s playing was eloquently complemented by the strings of the BBC Concert Orchestra.

It was followed by the premiere of Caine’s Code Blue – a four-movement suite for piano and orchestra that gave vent to his powers of extemporisation and ability to integrate often intricate passagework within equally elaborate orchestral textures. The title of each movement was more or less reflected in its musical content: thus the lively imitative writing – with a hint of classic bop – of ‘Birdtalk’; the conflicting rhythms, and also mangling of the American national anthem, in ‘Duyba At War’; the bluesysensuousness of ‘Softly You’; then finally the robust and increasingly hectic vigour of ‘Dancing Bear’.

It’s not necessarily a problem if Caine’s brand of orchestral jazz feels not a world away from Bill Russo’s hybrids of three decades ago – or that, without the presence of another’s music (along with his often imaginative reworking of Mahler Lieder, he has made far-reaching arrangements of such monuments to variation-form as Bach’s ‘Goldberg’ and Beethoven’s ‘Diabelli’) to react against, Caine’s original material evinces no mean resource but little true memorability. Still, with the BBCCO responding to his demands under the expert guidance of Robert Ziegler, and with concertante contributions from bassist Drew Gress and drummer Ben Perowsky that kept those involved on their collective toes, the performance met the challenges of the piece with some flair. Certainly a commission worth reviving.

The remainder of the concert was taken up with Surman’s The Road to St Ives: a ‘symphonic suite’ on what were originally improvisations that Surman has now elaborated in orchestral terms, then adding live contributions on alto, tenor and baritone saxes, bass clarinet and even a brief outing for piccolo. The piece charts a leisurely journey through the historic sites and landmarks of Cornwall (whether a literal or imaginative one is left to the listener’s perception) in music which is thoughtful, at times hauntingly so, but lacking in contrasts of mood and texture – for all the dexterity with which Surman varies his own input, as also numerous poetic solos from the orchestral woodwind. A sterling level of musicianship was never in doubt, but the work’s 47-minute duration did seem a fair time in passing.

Still, with jazz – and orchestral! – musicians of this calibre, the overall evening was never less than an engrossing and enjoyable one, and the empathy demonstrated by Caine and Surman suggests that it would be worth while their taking time out of their hectic schedules and developing original material for performance in the future – perhaps at an event under the auspices of the London Jazz Festival.

  • Recorded for broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on 24 November at 7.30

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