John Surman

CD18,90 out of print

A new chapter opens in the work of one of Europe’s most consistently adventurous musicians. "Coruscating" features finely crafted and richly-melodic music for strings by John Surman, with the composer and his long-time associate Chris Laurence deployed as primary soloists and improvisers. The music heard on "Coruscating" was, in live performance, one of the big successes of ECM’s 30th Anniversary Festival in Brighton and was also hailed as one of the highlights of the Bath Festival. Reviewing the material, The Times of London compared its sonorities to the music of Ralph Vaughan Williams and Benjamin Britten. Jazz, though, remains a crucial component of the material. Tracks such as "Stone Flower" reveal Surman’s love of Duke Ellington. The piece is dedicated to the memory of Ellington’s great baritone saxophone, Harry Carney, one of Surman’s primary influences and a player to whom John has often been compared by the press.

Featured Artists Recorded

January 1999, CTS Studio, London

Original Release Date


  • 1At Dusk
    (John Surman)
  • 2Dark Corners
    (John Surman)
  • 3Stone Flower
    (John Surman)
  • 4Moonless Midnight
    (John Surman)
  • 5Winding Passages
    (John Surman)
  • 6An Illusive Shadow
    (John Surman)
  • 7Crystal Walls
    (John Surman)
  • 8For The Moment
    (John Surman)
Gramophone, Editor's Choice
The formula is simple. An ad hoc string quartet with a willingness to "fit" the music, an ace saxophonist with case full of different instruments (soprano and baritone saxophones, bass and contrabass clarinets) and a bass player who can swim happily with the improvisational tide. … The opening "At Dusk" conjures the purity of a Bach chorale. … Coruscating is an after-hours listen, thoughtful yet undemanding, imaginative but unpretentious.
Rob Cowan, Gramophone
Mild-mannered master reedsman John Surman has excelled himself with Coruscating. … Surman's compositions are quintessentially English. Some have pointed to echoes of Vaughan Williams and Britten (I would add Byrd) in these exquisite miniatures whose filigree structures support elegant solos. Some of the less jazz oriented songs could be said to rank with some of the best new classical music to have emerged in this country in recent years.
Mike Bradley, The Times
A breathtakingly beautiful and melancholic album.
Chris Ingham, Mojo
A perfect addition to the ECM catalogue. The purity of Surman's playing - the agility and poise of his soprano, the sonorous dignity of his clarinets and the gruff plaintiveness of his baritone - makes him an obvious candidate for classically-oriented pieces. The elegance and grace of these compositions, full of clear, memorable melodies but drawing on jazz influences as well as on chamber music and English folk, render them eminently suitable as vehicles for such an uncontrived and cultured fusion of styles.
Chris Parker, Jazz Review
Surman's compositions are steeped in his characteristic and very English pastoral feel, providing the improvisers with an often hauntingly beautiful base from which to launch their coruscating forays, whether on Surman's range of horns or Laurence's majestic bass. A beautiful and beautifully realised project.
Kenny Mathieson, Jazzwise
A strong musical voice offers a programme of variety and imagination. Very ECM in conception: highly original music, superb performances, fine recording and stylish presentation.
James Jolly, Gramophone
Deserves to sell as many copies as Jan Garbarek's collaborations with the Hilliard Ensemble. Stunningly successful, with Laurence's double-bass stepping lightly between the notated contributions of the string quartet and Surman's improvisations.
Phil Johnson, The Independent on Sunday
Das Aufeinandertreffen von klassischen Streichquartetten mit außerklassischen Solisten ist längst keine Provokation mehr. Doch während da oft die stilistische Versöhnung mehr gewagt als zu Ende musiziert wurde, öffnet nun John Surman mit dem Quartett Trans4mation sowie dem Ex-Kontrabassisten von St. Martin-in-the-Fields, Chris Laurence, ganz weit die Pforte für seine weitverzweigten Stimmungsbilder. Hier sind die musikalischen Weltmeere mit aller Vorsicht ausgekundschaftet worden, um das Zusammenrücken der Klangkontinente so plausibel wie möglich zu machen.
Guido Fischer, Jazzthetik
Finely crafted and richly-melodic music for strings by John Surman, with the composer and his long-time associate Chris Laurence deployed as primary soloists and improvisers.

John Surman's outstanding accomplishments as an improvising musician hardly need restating at this point. When the Devon-born multi-instrumentalist arrived on the London scene in the mid-1960s he was very rapidly acclaimed as the first major voice on the baritone saxophone since Gerry Mulligan, and has been a persistent poll-winner ever since... and a musician whose lyrical imagination and expressive power has dazzled in so many diverse contexts: from The Trio (with Barre Phillips and Stu Martin) to John Potter's Dowland Project, from the Paul Bley Quartet to the jazz and Arab music synthesis of the "Thimar" trio with Anouar Brahem and Dave Holland. His own projects on ECM have ranged from his unique solo/overdub projects ("Upon Reflection", "Withholding Pattern", "Private City", "Road To Saint Ives" and "A Biography of the Rev. Absalom Dawe") to the melodically inventive free improvising of the "Stranger Than Fiction" quartet with John Taylor, Chris Laurence and John Marshall, from duets with Jack DeJohnette to the massed horns of "The Brass Project".

Alongside his soloistic achievements, Surman has been growing steadily as a composer, putting his background and enthusiasms to good use, unafraid to take risks and yet never overreaching himself, a familiar problem when musicians try to step beyond the demarcation lines of their given idiom. Surman's work may also transcend familiar boundaries, but it is really all of a piece. It seems always centred, grounded. Although a deep love of the entire jazz tradition is an important element - early Ellington is a particular enthusiasm, as evidenced on the piece "Stone Flower" on the present recording - he is equally affected by the melodic qualities of chamber music, choral music and English folk music. He has been integrating these elements in both his playing and his writing for a long time now. For listeners who know Surman only from records, his 1998 recording, his Mercury Prize-nominated "Proverbs And Songs" - the powerful oratario featuring the 75 voices of the Salisbury Festival Chorus - may have seemed a departure; in reality it was a continuation.

Surman's development as a writer has been spurred by, for instance, his long association with Carolyn Carlson, dating back to collaborative work at the Paris Opera in the mid-1970s. He wrote "Private City" for the Sadlers Wells Royal Ballet, and was Composer In Residence at the Glasgow Jazz Festival in 1989. He has written music for film, TV and radio plays. In 1993 he was commissioned to write a new suite for the Oslo Radio Symphony Orchestra and Quartet. In 1998 he premiered a new chamber orchestra version of the "Road To Saint Ives", commissioned by the Bournemouth Sinfonietta. In the same year he also received a commission to present new music for saxophone and strings at the Bath Festival. It was this commission that led, ultimately, to the music heard on "Coruscating".

Reviewing the pieces on the first airing in Bath, The Times drew comparisons between Surman's writing and "the sonorities of Vaughan Williams, Bridge, and Britten" and spoke of the special "stamp of authority" conferred by the solos of Surman and Laurence.

John Surman, on the projects's genesis: "Chris Laurence and I have played together for many years in a variety of contexts, including our regular quartet with John Taylor and John Marshall, as well as in larger groups like the Brass Project. We had spoken about the possibility of getting some music together in a duo format, but somehow never really developed the idea. It was only when I was writing music for a concert in Prague with the Krynkl string quartet that it struck me what a terrific idea it might be to add Chris to the string quartet formation. This could produce a really interesting ensemble in which the double-bass would operate both as part of the string group and as an independent improvising voice.

"Chris and I decided early in the planning that we wanted to assemble this group 'from scratch' and not use an already-existing string quartet. This would ensure that all of the players were happy with the idea of working with music that included a great deal of improvisation, especially from Chris and myself. Through his long association with the orchestra of St Martin in the Fields, Chris was able to suggest some terrific string players who were not only superb chamber music specialists in their own right but who were also already familiar with our particular style of music making and who were keen to become involved.

"Happily, things went well at our first rehearsal and the music has continued to develop ever since."
2024 July 21 Inntöne Jazzfestival Diersbach, Austria
2024 September 08 Pierre Boulez Saal Berlin, Germany