Review: John Surman & Karin Krog

Michael Tucker catches John Surman with Norwegian vocalist Karin Krog in a post-London Jazz Festival gig in Brighton, followed by Ketil Bjørnstad in Southampton

Fresh from a couple of gigs at the EFG London Jazz Festival, John Surman delighted a healthy-sized audience at The Brighton Dome Studio Theatre (previously known as The Pavilion Theatre) with a set drawn partly from his much-acclaimed Saltash Bells solo release on ECM, but also featuring further folk-tinged, song-like improvisations soaked in the spirit of both the blues and (equally welcome) modern swing. Recorder, soprano, bass clarinet and baritone were all deployed, together with a range of rhythmically enticing, synthesizer-generated ostinato loops. Surman now has the art of integrating live and pre-recorded material down to such a level that it can seem to the listener that the electronic material is being activated and altered by the live improvisation of an exceptional musician who also has the capacity, when he so wishes, to offer various well-turned comic observations in the various spoken interludes he affords himself on these solo occasions.

For his second set, Surman was joined by legendary Norwegian singer Karin Krog (pictured), also fresh from the EFG London Jazz Festival. The couple have been working together for many years now, with their latest release Songs About This And That (on Krog's Meantime label) offering considerably more poetic penetration and instrumental mastery than such a prosaic title might suggest. Certainly, there was nothing prosaic about the music they played in Brighton. Employing electronics to judicious effect, Krog was in fine voice throughout a set which ranged from abstract "sound-meditations" to Ellington's In A Sentimental Mood (given a beautifully spare reading) and Norwegian folk song – including a humorous piece transcribed by Krog's great-grandfather. One of many highlights was a deeply meditative reading of Wild Bird from the 1994 Nordic Quartet album on ECM, its unfolding layers of epic lament given complementary contrast by the magical set closer that was The Wizard's Song. Baying approval from the room precipitated the perky, saucy blues that was the equally appreciated encore.

Much as one relishes the cornucopia of pleasure offered by the London Jazz Festival, it is of course great to have the chance to experience such quality music outside London. This event was the first result of a new initiative from Brighton Jazz Club: with Brighton's The Verdict taking care of (excellent) club gigs on a weekly basis, the BJC will now concentrate on promoting occasional exceptional concerts in a larger Brighton venue. Look out in the new year for John Taylor, Julian Argüelles, Marius Neset and more.

Sixty miles or so down the road from Brighton, Southampton's Turner Sims Hall has long done an excellent job in promoting the best in both jazz and classical music. This, the Turner's 40th year in operation, was celebrated with some terrific concerts, with surely none more appropriate than that given by Norwegian pianist and ECM recording artist Ketil Bjørnstad on Friday 21 November.

As Bjørnstad (born 1952) told us in one of the several brief yet informative and stimulating spoken interludes he offered in the 70-minute concert, he was trained as a classical musician and had given many classical recitals before meeting musicians like Arild Andersen and Jon Christensen in the early 1970s, at the famous Arne Bendiksen studio in Oslo. They asked him why he did not think to create his own music, a freer music than that which had preoccupied him thus far. The breadth and depth of what would come to be the result of responding positively to such advice was amply evident in an extremely well-received concert, which Bjørnstad split into four sections.

Following a compelling exploration of dampened treble figures inside the piano (a fine Steinway), rumbling bass passages of often thunderous power, and some complex two-handed chordal movement in all registers, Bjørnstad took us back to some of his early ventures into compositions rich in both rocking melody and harmonic improvisation, as he revisited classic albeit now seldom-heard material from his 1970s Norwegian albums Blue Mountain and Music For A Long Night. He then offered a potent suite drawn from his recent and surpassing Remembrance trio ECM album (recorded with Tore Brunborg and Jon Christensen), at times interpreting the rolling, lyrical themes with considerably more rhythmic thrust than is evident on the recording. Lyrical delicacy and rhythmic power were then equally evident in a shape-shifting excursion which took its initial impetus from Mozart, before the evening concluded with the exquisitely turned encore that was the meditative If Only.

Bjørnstad came to the Turner Sims Hall following some solo concerts in Spain and was on his way down to Bristol's St George's Hall the next day, to participate in the Norwegian Day set up there by Radio 3's Fiona Talkington. If you ever get the chance to catch this multi-talented musician solo, do so: his blend of classical, harmonically literate technique and poetically turned, sometimes modally driven jazz improvisation really does offer something special, with the sort of invigorating rhythmic vigour or muscle to it which one might not have anticipated had one registered only the more delicately cast aspects of his (excellent) recorded work.

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