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Coruscating

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Album Review

In John Surman's wildly diverse recorded catalog, two things remain constant: his dedication to finding the players he wants and getting the sonic atmosphere he needs to accomplish his musical ideas. There are few players and/or composers whose record is as consistent or as prolific as Surman's. John Zorn may be as diverse, but he's got a long way to go to match Surman's recorded output. Surman is one of those artists who is the creative musician ECM is named for. His career can be categorized according to the definition of this album's title, "flashing brightly." On Coruscating Surman assembles a string quartet, a bassist, and his own array of saxophones and clarinets to embark upon a journey that texturally resembles a suite, but is actually a series of compositions by Surman of settings for strings and soloists. The atmospheric backdrop that the string quartet drapes the scene with is chilling in its beauty. Bassist Chris Laurence and Surman are soloists in another world, full of color, balance, and harmonic space. That said, there are two pieces on the record written strictly for strings and bass where Surman doesn't appear at all. On "Stone Flower," a tribute to the late baritone saxophonist Harry Carney, Surman bleeds the opening with the strings playing glissandi and states a minimal melodic theme before allowing Laurence to move into this space and paint it with a deeply moving and melodically intricate bass solo. Surman's own solo restates the theme twice (sounding like something out of 1940s Hollywood — Charlie Haden eat your heart out) before reaching into Carney's fake book for a phraseology that is equal parts his own and the late musician's — particularly in the glides to the lower register of the baritone. Harmonically, the tune is simple enough, but Surman stretches it in the upper register while crossing lines with Laurence. It's not dissonant, but it isn't consonant either. Rather, as Jackie McLean would say, there exists here "a fickle sonance." There is "out" baritone sax play on the album, however, as "The Illusive Shadow," originally commissioned by a dance company, moves modally to juxtapose itself against a series of tone rows by the string section. The notes and phrases are minimal, but there are microphonics coming from both the horn and the two violins, underscored deeply by Laurence. It feels as if the notes have disappeared altogether into an ether of silence and resonant harmonics. As the work progresses, there are serial tone rows asserting themselves before giving way to pastoral washes of color and nuance. "Winding Passages" is an illustrative work that feels very close in its beginning to Vaughan Williams in its layering of the string quartet's individual harmonic cadences; viola and cello assert themselves in counterpoint and are closely followed in unison by the violins. It changes quickly, however, upon the entrance of Surman's bass clarinet and Laurence's pizzicato style. The minor-key, shaded trade-off with the strings presents a problem of intervallic irresolution, but it's covered by the bass clarinet which fluidly binds both ends together in a gorgeous cadenza that scales the strings and offers an open mode for Laurence. It's simply brilliant in its modern classicism — a la Britten, Williams, and even Dvorak in places — and still so full of Gil Evans elegance in its jazz-like architecture, where tempos and changes occur seamlessly and without warning according to space and color. Coruscating is one of the finer moments in an already stellar career. Coruscating's mood and timbre is delicate, mysterious, and gentle, but its musical reach is muscular and wide.

Biography

Born: August 30, 1944 in Tavistock, England

Genre: Jazz

Years Active: '60s, '70s, '80s, '90s, '00s, '10s

John Surman was one of the very few saxmen in England to find a significant audience in rock during the late '60s, playing gigs regularly at venues like the Marquee Club in London. Also a clarinetist of some renown, and no slouch on keyboards either, the atmospheric sounds that Surman creates on his horns has been a major asset to the ECM label ever since the late '70s; but, before that, he was an extremely prolific artist on Deram, Futura, Dawn, and Island, cutting seven solo albums between 1968...
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Coruscating, John Surman
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