Review: John Surman in Southampton

To cap a magical night at the Turner Sims hall the multi-instrumentalist moved amongst the people, improvising a tribute to British folk music over a drone note supplied by the audience, writes Michael Tucker

John SurmanSituated in a beautifully landscaped part of the University of Southampton campus, with several Barbara Hepworth sculptures permanently on view, The Turner Sims Concert Hall has put on some of the best gigs I've seen over the past decade or so. There have been special evenings from the likes of Andy Sheppard, Tomasz Stanko, Dhafer Youssef and Arve Henriksen,  Ralph Towner and Paolo Fresu – and John Surman.

Tuesday 12 June saw the legendary multi-instrumentalist return to Southampton, to launch his new ECM solo album, Saltash Bells. Playing soprano and baritone saxophones, alto clarinet and recorder ("I've had this one since school!" he told us) Surman made selective and effective use of digital delay and loops in a two-set, 90-minute programme, distinguished equally by instrumental mastery and poetic atmosphere.

There was plenty of material from the excellent new album, but there were also welcome pieces from previous solo releases Private City and A Biography Of The Rev. Absalom Dawe. After a haunting, folk-based yet chromatically touched opening piece on that school recorder, complete with some extraordinary tongue trills and subtly controlled vocalising, an extensive improvisation on baritone hinted at Nordic climes before turning towards the Caribbean.

Spacious, gently unfolding folkish moods on soprano and clarinet were contrasted by a beautifully measured yet shouting blues, again on baritone; intricately textured loops moved in and out of mood-rinsed focus to complement this master musician's consistent warmth of considered tone and breadth of melodic line.

Throughout, an amiable Surman took time to contextualise pieces, even reading the poem that had inspired the especially affecting Not Love Perhaps from Private City. "What do you want, blood?" he cried affectionately in response to the many vociferous demands for an encore before moving amongst the audience, as it supplied the drone note he had requested, to finish a quite magical night with an improvised, three-part overview of the folk legacy of the British Isles.

Photo: Emile Holba

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