A slight feeling of disappointment clouded the start of this gig. The festival programme writer reckoned that we would hear John Surman play « a short solo set », followed by a new commission for larger forces. His new release from ECM Saltash Bells is perhaps the summit of his solo achievement - as he explores the possibilities of high level jazz improvisation as a way of exploring one particular variety of Englishness - so that would have been great to hear. But it didn’t happen.
Still, our finest baritone and soprano sax player joining 60 male voices and old associate Howard Goodall on keyboards ought to offer good things to make up for that, right ? Well, up to a point.
The nine part choral suite, Lifelines, was a joint commission by Radio 3 and the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, featuring the massed ranks of the Bolsterstone Male Voice Choir. Surman’s deep feeling for choral music came through in the composing and arranging. The lyrics, though, gave the set an uneven quality. The first trio of songs opened with a piece inspired by a Japanese painting - and choir and soloist worked as one. When the voices mused on « an old man fishing, alone in the snow », with tenor recorder commenting, we felt the chill. An aboriginal-flavoured song followed, and then a splendidly rhythmic hunting song inspired by native Brazilians.
That last piece was in their language, so unintelligible, and the effectively wordless vocal worked especially well. The next sequence of three were less effective, for me, although described as the centre of the work. They paid homage to the industrial history of Yorkshire, but the words made the choir’s contribution seem a little flat. Sample verse :
Such is the price of coal
The mine has taken its toll
And we are reminded once again
How nature controls the fate of men
This seems folk music’s territory. When Stan Tracey commemorated the Industrial Revolution in a long ago festival commission, The Crompton Suite, he did it without words. If you do use them, they had better be good. These didn’t quite rise to the occasion, especially if you were thinking of songs by June Tabor, say, Martin Carthy, or the Albion Band. It might have worked better to take an existing song - « The Gresford Disaster » is the obvious choice for a miners’ lament - and re-work it.
Things perked up in the final three song section. This saw a shift to the West Country, where the saxophonist obviously feels more at home. And the lyrics now came from other sources - a poem turned into a rousing smugglers’ anthem, an old sailor’s drinking song Surman heard as a child. The words were more stirring - « pop your nose in a jug of this ! » was the refrain (now we were in Fairport Convention territory) - and the choir more inspired, I fancy.
So a mixed bag. The choir sounded splendid. So, of course, did the composer, especially as the suite neared the end and he opened out a little on the final songs - Surman’s baritone is pretty much made for evoking the jauntiness of a sea-shanty.
Needless to say, he played brilliantly throughout, and it is always a delight to see him in London. The best bit ? For me, that was after the Bolsterstone brigade’s departure, when he finally treated us to a brief solo piece, nodding to Saltash Bells. Surman-plus-choir has plenty to hold the interest, but I’d still be happy to hear him next time without.