JAZZ / Still, small voice: Jason Nisse on John Surman's Brass Project at the Lilian Bayliss in London

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JOHN SURMAN couldn't look smart if he tried. Even in the regulation serious musician's uniform of black shirt and trousers, he still has an air of scruffiness, like someone who does odd jobs around the house. But his charming West Country bumpkin act stops as soon as he picks up a saxophone. There is a deliberation, an order that permeates his music, from the seminal Amazing Adventures of Simon Simon a decade ago, to the recent 'hit', Road to St Ives, and last year's classic, Adventure Playground.

It is this stillness that sets Surman's Brass Project apart from similar groups - like David Murray's Octet or Carla Bley's smaller line-ups. Amid the premeditated anarchy that is the hallmark of modern mid- to big-band jazz, Surman emerges like oil being poured on troubled waters. It helps that he tends to use particularly soothing instruments - such as the baritone and soprano saxophones, or a wonderful-looking bass clarinet. When he reverts to piano, the Brass Project loses most of its uniqueness.

The group - which Surman leads with the Canadian composer John Warren - is 12 years old. It was formed for a concert at the late, lamented Roundhouse in Camden and, in Surman's words, 'the group has had to survive without grant or subsidy' since. It is not surprising that the 10 strong line-up, which once boasted such luminaries as Kenny Wheeler and Harry Beckett, has changed a bit. But with Chris Laurence on bass, John Marshall on drums and Guy Barker on trumpet, and with a 'debut' album released, the Brass Project is in pretty good shape.

In concert, Surman and the band largely ignore the output of their brief recording career. The highlight was a 30-minute work in progress, tentatively called Shortfall. The piece jumped from style to style, taking in most of the last 30 years of jazz history, often without any attempts to cover the joins. At times you could imagine Tony Bennett in the wings, preparing his 'Islington, I love you' patter. And then Surman threw in a folksy, lyrical stanza on the baritone sax and the band launched into a raucous, rhythm'n'blues.

There were other points in the evening when the band approached brilliance, but there were also elements that did not work. An arrangement of 'My Old Man' was embarrassing and some of the more avant-garde solos had members of the audience shuffling in their seats. In the end, though, Surman's Brass Project proved the ability of Plymouth's finest musician to charm and entertain while performing some of the most exciting jazz being produced anywhere in the world at the moment.

Radio 3 will broadcast the concert on 5 June at 10.30pm.

The Brass Project is released on ECM Records in all formats.

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