Recorded live at the Berlin Jazz Festival and the Tampere Jazz Happening in November 2000, "Invisible Nature" is the overdue follow-up to "The Amazing Adventures of Simon Simon", the 1981 debut by the John Surman/JackDeJohnette duo. The musical relationship between the two men goes back still further, however. In 1968, when DeJohnette was in London with the Bill Evans Trio at Ronnie Scott's Club, he took time out to improvise with local musicians. John Surman: "Jack instigated a jam session series in the afternoons, and the word got out. So I was there, along with John McLaughlin, Dave Holland and Tony Oxley."
Surman and DeJohnette found an immediate affinity and have been in close contact ever since. Jack and John also had a mutual friend in drummer Stu Martin, and in '74 Surman moved to Woodstock in New York State for six months, to be close to both of them. It was a period of pooling ideas and energies. Surman played briefly with DeJohnette's Directions band, which was also where he met and befriended guitarist John Abercrombie, another important contact for the future. Jack and John's first recording together for ECM took place in 1978, on guitarist Mick Goodrick's "In Pas(s)ing" album, and the first duo gig as such was at a drum clinic in Milan, shortly before the "Simon Simon" session. "An amazingly intense experience", Surman remembers, "I walked away reeling from it - and was keen to repeat it as soon as possible!"
Through the 80s and 90s, the Surman/DeJohnette duo was intermittently operational, a format joyfully returned to when crowded schedules allowed. In 1990, John and Jack premiered new music with the Balanescu Quartet and a decade later wrote also for the London Brass ensemble. Their collaboration with London Brass was recorded in 2001 and is scheduled for future ECM release. Meanwhile, the duo: a remarkably big sounding small group, committed to free improvising and spontaneous composition. Their pleasure in this shared freedom is palpable, both men are given to exultant and tumultuous playing, but there are also tender and carefully considered moments.
"Mysterium" from Finland's Tampere festival, immediately sketches some of the possibilities.
DeJohnette plays bass patterns on an electronic drum, syncopated in real time with his subtle kit sounds while Surman simultaneously supplies a drone on keyboard synthesizer and floats his yearning reed cries through a digital delay unit. The group sound here is vast, cavernous.
The duo uses electronics to shape the acoustical spaces in which the music unfolds. "Ganges Groove", for instance, is an intimate piece suggestive of an Indian recital room: played with hands, DeJohnette's electronic drum takes on tabla sonorities, while Surman's MIDI wind controller sounds like the bansuri flute's high tech cousin.
DeJohnette's ingenuity on the electronic drum also brings the colours of congas and pedal-tympani into the music on "Fair Trade" and "Outback Spirits" respectively. The drummer's sensitivity to sound colour is as evident here as it is in his extraordinary kit playing.
Recent Surman recordings on ECM have emphasized his growing confidence as a composer: the Mercury Prize nominated oratorio "Proverbs and Songs", the music for reeds, string quartet and double-bass on "Coruscating". We have also seen Surman integrate his improvisational skills in the quasi-classical context of John Dowland songs with ex-Hilliard Ensemble singer John Potter on "In Darkness Let Me Dwell". "Invisible Nature", however, has a closer relationship to the kind of music John Surman made when he first burst upon the scene as a galvanic player of prodigious gifts. His unfettered, freely expressive soloing from Berlin and Tampere will speak to those who recall, for instance, the Surman/Barre Phillips/Stu Martin Trio. John Surman has long been one of the most resourceful musicians in jazz, as well as one of its most lyrical soloists. But sparks fly and something special happens when he is challenged by strong rhythm.
Jack DeJohnette is particularly happy that current playing opportunities - with both the "Standards Trio", with Keith Jarrett and Gary Peacock, and in the duo with Surman - are putting emphasis on free collective playing once more. The drummer of course has worked the entire tradition of jazz, and played with everyone from Thelonious Monk to Miles Davis and Sonny Rollins, but he made some of his earliest artistic statements as a member of the Chicago avant-garde, with Muhal Richard Abrams' Experimental Band and other units at the birth of the AACM. He also played with Coltrane in the transitional period between the groups with Elvin Jones and Rashied Ali, and the concept of creating "in the moment" remains important to him. And, as he points out, while there are many musicians who engage in group improvisation today, there are few who can create spontaneous song forms as Surman can, his melodic instincts functioning amid even the most heated improvisational exchanges.