This CD/DVD set (buy it from Amazon) documents a one-off session by a band that never did any road work or even recorded a formal studio album. Saxophonist John Surman convened a 10-piece band featuring tenor saxophonist and flautist Alan Skidmore; tenor saxophonist Ronnie Scott; alto saxophonist Mike Osborne; trombonists Malcolm Griffiths and Erich Kleinschuster; trumpeter and flugelhornist Kenny Wheeler; pianist Fritz Pauer; bassist Harry Miller; and drummer Alan Jackson. They headed off to Germany to play a concert which would be recorded and broadcast on NDR (Norddeutscher Rundfunk). The music on this set comes from the rehearsals, which were also recorded and videotaped.

ndr

Three of the five pieces are by Surman, one is by Pauer, and one is by Kleinschuster. All are of a similar character, though, and this is what makes the whole thing interesting. The heads are highly melodic and quite pretty. But when the solos commence, some players stick to that style and come off almost big band-ish (Scott and Wheeler are the most conventionally swinging and boppish), while others head out, but never to the degree of the free improvisors like Derek Bailey, Evan Parker or Peter Brötzmann who were making themselves heard elsewhere in England and Europe at that time. Some of the wildest playing comes from saxophonist Alan Skidmore, who’s speaking the language of Coltrane circa 1964-65, and trombonist Malcolm Griffiths, who erupts into squeals and smeared blurts. By contrast, Erich Kleinschuster plays a very straightforward solo on a different number, and Scott’s tenor sax solo is almost romantic when contrasted with Skidmore’s long, spiraling, somewhat solipsistic runs. Surman’s own work, mostly on soprano saxophone, falls somewhere between the two poles—the compositions are his and the essential melodic quality remains present at all times, but he goes pretty far out before finding his way back to earth. The rhythm section is excellent, particularly bassist Harry Miller, whose percussive, string-snapping work is reminiscent of William Parker crossed with a flamenco guitarist.

In between numbers on the DVD, there’s some discussion between Surman and the other members of the band. In the booklet, this is described as “slightly stagey,” an attempt to dramatize for the folks at home how jazz musicians work out arrangements. But it feels natural – at least as natural as a group performing for multiple cameras and no audience.

The editing is patient and unobtrusive, and each musician’s name appears on-screen when he’s taking his solo, which when combined with the adventurous-yet-melodic tone of the music makes this a fascinating document even for those (like me) not at all versed in 1960s British jazz.

Phil Freeman

Here’s a trailer that gives some idea of what you’ll see and hear:

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