John Surman – Brewster's Rooster (2009)

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photo: Haakon Harriss

by Pico

John Surman may not be a household name on these American shores, but it’s hard to think of a sax guy out of Britain who has been more prolific over the last 40 years than this one. His own discography is a wide sweep over post-bop, avant garde, fusion, chamber jazz. He has long displayed an affinity for classical and choral music, as well as an ability to compose for anything from theater to television. Ultimately, though, his reputation is staked on his instrumental prowess, especially on soprano and baritone saxes.

With those instruments that sit on the opposite ends of the tonal spectrum of the saxophones, Surman had long ago created his own signature sound on both horns, one that is fluid, refined and reveals a highly distinctively subtle vibrato, especially when he reaches for the higher notes. Putting together all these components of Surman’s artistry, and it adds up to a nice fit with the consummate Euro-jazz label ECM Records, and the Englishman has recorded with them nearly exclusively for the past thirty years, now.

After diversions into so many other challenging styles, Brewster’s Rooster is Surman’s return to no-nonsense jazz. His selection of personnel is also no-nonsense: drummer Jack DeJohnette, with whom he’s enjoyed many successful collaborations with spanning decades; guitarist John Abercrombie, a frequent partner of DeJohnette’s and someone with whom Surman has also played with in the past; and bassist Drew Gress, a veteran of New York’s improvised music (Tim Berne) and post-bop (Fred Hersch) scenes. Even with a long, impressive credit list, this is first Gress’ first appearance on an ECM record, however, and probably the first time Gress has recorded on a record led by any of the other three.

Gress is quickly made to feel welcome as he is taking the first solo of the album, and he uses the occasion on the sparse “Slanted Sky” to take an excursion of notes nearly as lyrical as Dave Holland. The other notable thing about this cut is the close, instinctive repartee between Surman and Abercrombie. It sets the tone for the rest of the record.

Truthfully, though, all of these four are assuming roles that are roughly equal in importance, with the relative importance adjusted a little bit for each song. For “Hilltop Dancer,” Gress and DeJohnette set the pace with a sharp bass/tom-tom groove, and the two up-front players take turns riding some well-constructed solos on top of it. “No Finesse” works much the same way, except that the tempo is a waltz and DeJohnette makes use of his cymbals and snare more. On “Kickback,” Gress is shouldering more of the melody, allowing Abercrombie to let loose with some bop lines done with a rock tone. Surman’s baritone comes in after Abercrombie and swings hard and sometimes getting rather heated.

Aside from John Warren’s “Slanted Sky,” Billy Strayhorn’s elegant “Chelsea Bridge” is the only non-Surman composition here. Once again on baritone, the leader gives this old standard a straight, soulful reading. “Haywain” is the out-jazz excursion of the bunch, a tune built on feel and group improvisation, things that every one of these masters are well equipped to handle. “Counter Measures” has elongated lines and a spare sonic imprint that calls to mind the classic ECM sound of the 70’s and 80’s.

The set ends with the elliptical funk of “Brewster’s Rooster” and the light, catchy, “Going For A Burton,” which ends with some fiery blowing by both Surman and Abercrombie at the same time.

On sale today, Brewster’s Rooster might not be destined to go down as among the seminal work of any of its participants, but that’s more a function of the vast contributions of the individuals involved. On its own, though, Surman’s latest proves he and his cohorts can still handle the demands of advanced post-bop jazz with the ease of skill and quiet sophistication.

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on,, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at [email protected] .com or follow him on Twitter at
S. Victor Aaron
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