At home abroad

Jazz byRichard Cook

The saxophones that most people find beguiling are the tenor and alto instruments. In the hands of someone like Ben Webster, the tenor sax became a weapon of mass seduction, all breathy persuasion and huffing melody. The other members of the family, the baritone and soprano, are opposite ends of the scale in more ways than one. The baritone is big, ungainly and flatulent; the soprano can be thin and reedy and often flies out of tune. John Surman, the rubicund man of Devon who has been among the most dependable fixtures in British jazz for three decades, has specialised in both of them and made them forget their characters. He gets a sonorous melancholy out of the big horn, which can transform itself into an urgent wail when he pushes into a false register, and the soprano he casts as a clarion instrument, more like a pan piper's reed than the severe metal sound that is its norm. Fittingly enough, the second half of his career has been a journey into rarefied areas that seem remote from his British jazz roots.

It's a propitious moment to reconsider his long and thoughtful career, since some of his earliest discs - for Deram, the pop-psychedelic-progressive offshoot of Decca in the 1960s - have reappeared after many years in limbo. The earliest, John Surman, is split between then-fashionable calypso jazz and three tracks for a big, sometimes overblown ensemble of 11. That second strain is carried on through both How Many Clouds Can You See? and Tales of the Algon-quin, where crowded structures jostle around the different soloists to varying effect. Frankly, much of the music feels as dated as most of the pop of the same era. Surman was used to open-ended improvising in the post-Coltrane manner, and he seems entombed some of the time. There are worthy cameos from some of his contemporaries, but it's really only his playing that carries the weight of something memorable beyond the language of the time, and the British fondness for suites - a toothache brought on by too many festival commissions - isn't to anyone's advantage.

The 1970s were an inauspicious decade for jazz in Britain, and Surman found most of his work abroad. He had already released an all-solo disc, Westering Home, in 1970 and in the 1980s he began making one-man sessions for ECM. The crux of many of them has been his own improvising set against a fixed and monotonal pattern behind him, perhaps a synthesiser ostinato or a piano figure. The coolness and muted precision of the settings has disappointed some who remember the unbridled gutsiness of Surman's earliest work, but it is his own niche by now, and a surprisingly singular one. While this kind of tone-poem jazz has usually suggested brittle Nordic landscapes or stark steppes, Surman has titled many of his tunes for his West Country geography, and drawn on strains of Anglican church music and British folk to send a line to earth. The result is a shrewd mixture of styles, poised between introspection and a more rumbustious delivery.

On the rare occasions when he guests on other people's records, he sounds like a citizen of the world. A new group record by the pianist Misha Alperin, First Impression (ECM), finds him quite at home among Norwegians and Russians, playing a baritone solo on "City Dance" which is as inventive as his early music but tempered and made almost filigree by his subsequent journeyings. It is a rather odd fate for a man who did some of his early work with Alexis Korner, and his frequent exile from the UK only shows how many wonderful opportunities there are for our most creative musicians to work at home.

John Surman and the pianist John Taylor play at Kettles Yard Gallery, Cambridge, on 5 March

This article first appeared in the 19 February 1999 issue of the New Statesman, We are richer than you think