John Surman ‘Invisible Threads’ LP/CD (ECM) 4/5

ECM has a wonderful habit of championing unusual and unexpected combinations of musicians with consequent new musical fusions created and this is a case in point. The genesis for this collaboration with Brazilian musician Nelson Ayers came at a much earlier stage when John Surman met the Brazilian singer and musicologist Marlui Miranda. She in turn introduced the multi-reedist to pianist Ayers and the artistic juices started to flow in both directions. Nelson Ayers has enjoyed a long and distinguished career and was actively involved in the 1972 Airto Moreira led Light as a Feather formation including at various junctures both Chick Corea (memorably for an ECM album which is one of this writer’s all-time favourites) and, interestingly, a young Keith Jarrett. During the 1970’s and 1980’s Ayers also served as conductor and artistic director for the Symphonic Jazz Orchestra for the state of São Paulo, and for the smaller ensemble Pau Brasil. Surman’s long-time love of folk melodies and Ayers own interest in Brazilian rhythms makes for a fascinating cross-pollination and added to the mix is vibraphone/marimba player Rob Waring. In terms of mood, the music divides up into two different, though interrelated parts and is a tale of two halves. The first half is more introspective and this is reflected in a piece such as, ‘Autumn Nocturne’, where sensitive accompaniment on piano creates with the leader on soprano saxophone a gentle and subtle musical palette. Likewise, there is a distinctly calming influence for, ‘On Still Water’, with piano and Surman this time on bass clarinet. Ayers is never overly flamboyant which is not necessarily a characteristic one would expect of a Brazilian pianist. In the second half of the album, especially where Ayers’ own composition, ‘Summer Song’, is showcased, the music is more joyful and Surman in turn adopts a lighter and more upbeat tone on soprano. A pity we could not hear more of Nelson Ayers’ writing which is excellent. The influence of Hermeto Pascoal and a strong Brazilian folk presence permeates, ‘Pitanga Pitomba’, where piano takes the limelight. While not quite on a par with John Surman’s other explorations into other folk cultures, notably, ‘Mathar’, this Brazilian-Scandinavian métissage does work and is definitely worthy with possibly a greater emphasis on the Brazilian folk tradition and why not even a couple of Brazilian songbook standards re-interpreted. Perhaps, surprisingly, this is Surman’s first CD for the label in some six years, but it has been worth the wait. Lengthy three page notes by Steve Lake are unusual for ECM, but a pleasant surprise and well worth investigating to find out about the other two musicians and how the project came about.

Tim Stenhouse