It was during the late 1980s that John Surman conceived of the idea of augmenting his regular working trio of Chris Laurence (double bass) and John Marshall (drums) but, wanting to avoid the obvious harmony instruments such as piano or guitar, decided on a brass choir and asked John Warren to arrange for it.
Their first album, The Brass Project, was released by ECM in 1992 and ‘The Traveller’s Tale’ received its debut performance at the very first London Jazz Festival in 1993. However, it was only in early 2017 that a near-forgotten recording of The Traveller’s Tale from that year came to light, enabling its recent release on CD by Fledg’ling Records. Unsurprisingly, Kings Place’s Room 2 was packed last night for an EFG London Jazz Festival event for which many in the audience had been waiting for almost a quarter century – the second-ever live performance of ‘The Traveller’s Tale’ by Surman’s and Warren’s Brass Project.
With Surman standing stage left, facing inwards towards Laurence and Marshall and, beyond them, a nine-piece brass choir seated in two rows – five trumpets behind and four trombones in front – Warren directed from centre stage. ‘Dawning’ began with a few fragmentary notes from Surman’s soprano saxophone, which soon evolved into a flow of short phrases, increasing in intensity as Laurence and Marshall joined the fray with restless rhythmic counterpoints. When the brass section finally entered it was to accompanying Surman, introducing fresh statements and to air its own fine trumpet and trombone soloists.
Warren, whose inspiration for this eight-part work was the life of travel and sea-faring adventure of his grandfather Jack Warren in the late 19th century, brings a deep basket of textures and voicings to the brass choir, presenting Surman, whether soloing on baritone or soprano saxes or bass clarinet, with so many musical ideas and moods to respond to. But Warren also left space for a breathtaking dialogue between bassist Laurence and drummer Marshall, affording plenty of opportunity for the soloists in the brass section, including trumpeters Tom Gardner and Luke Vice-Coles, as well as trombonists Harry Maund and Nabou Claerhout. The whole brass ensemble, all students at the Royal Academy of Music, had clearly worked hard under the benevolent guidance of their Head of Jazz, Nick Smart, to play with such precision, sensitivity and enthusiasm. Theirs was a major contribution to what was an extremely memorable performance.