Left - John Surman
A collaboration between a jazz saxophonist and a recorder player may seem an unlikely partnership, but John Surman and Genevieve Lacey managed to blend the sounds of the two instruments (and several others) in a way that made perfect musical sense at the Arts House on Friday night.
To call Surman ‘a jazz saxophonist’ is a great understatement for a musician and composer whose interests and experience range from John Dowland to electronics and from English folk music to synthesisers. Lacey is an equally versatile performer who regularly collaborates with a diverse range of artists and is passionately committed to playing contemporary music.
The depth of musical understanding between Surman and Lacey was evident in the first few minutes of Friday night’s program, which opened with a short, hauntingly beautiful recorder solo. As Lacey finished the piece, Surman echoed the recorder’s plaintive calls with his soprano sax in a seamless transition into the first of six short works for saxophone, double bass and piano. Surman’s ability to match the tone and timbre of Lacey’s instrument allowed him to move effortlessly from a recorder lament into cool jazz without a trace of awkwardness or incongruity.
Except for the first trio ‘Dandelion’, composed by John Warren, all the works on this program were composed by Surman. Obviously enjoying the company of bassist Chris Laurence and pianist Andrea Keller, Surman showcased the virtuosic talents of both musicians in each of the short trios. ‘Gone to the Dogs’ featured an extraordinary double bass solo, where Laurence’s instrument seemed to sing long phrases in a way I have never heard on the double bass before. Andrea Keller was magnetic to watch, drawing in the audience with intense, detailed solo work and then pulling back sensitively to allow Laurence and Surman to shine. The intimate jazz style of this part of the concert felt slightly out of place at the Arts House and perhaps would have been more suited to a smaller, more informal venue with less distance between performers and audience.
The second half of the concert presented two works written for saxophone, double bass and string quartet, with the second work featuring Lacey as soloist on various recorders. Initially the program had included the VCA String Ensemble conducted by Marco von Pagee, but it seems that Surman decided that a smaller sound would work better and the string parts were played by the Tinalley String Quartet.
Surman introduced the first work, ‘Illusive Shadow’, by asking the audience to imagine a ‘memory box’ in a dusty attic. However, if the image didn’t do much for us, we were to ‘just listen to the music!’ The work opened with twittering, fluttering, birdlike sounds in the saxophone and double bass parts, soon joined by the quartet which added to the twitching and muttering. From this, rich and vibrant melodies emerged from the strings; perhaps these were fragments of memory materialising from within the box, growing stronger and clearer, and drawing the listener in to a past world before disappearing. Tinalley handled this unusual performance context admirably, managing to communicate amongst themselves and simultaneously interact with the other musicians.
The last work, ‘Three Landscapes’, finally allowed Lacey to display her virtuosic talent; her instruments (which ranged from a tiny sopranino recorder to a clunky-looking contrabass) seemed to be extensions of her own body which sang with passion, delicacy and sensitivity. The small and much-maligned recorder finally comes into its own when Lacey plays, and her technical brilliance is never reduced to virtuosity for virtuosity’s sake, but remains entirely natural and meaningful.
Between the second and third parts of this work, Surman added a short trio for contrabass recorder, bass sax and double bass in order to take advantage of Lacey’s strange but intriguing contrabass. The trio shimmered, buzzed and hummed its way into the last part of the work, whose energetic dance rhythms brought the concert to an upbeat close.
It is to John Surman and Genevieve Lacey’s credit that an evening of enjoyable music was created through the improbable coming together of three jazz musicians, a recorder player and a string quartet.
John Surman and Genevieve Lacey
Venue: Arts House, North Melbourne Town Hall | 521 Queensberry St, North Melbourne
Dates: Friday 3 and Saturday 4 April
Tickets: $25 / $18
Bookings: artshouse.com.au or 03 9639 0096
More info: www.artshouse.com.au