John Surman's large-scale Proverbs and Songs was specifically composed for John Taylor and the Salisbury Festival Chorus, for the 1996 Salisbury Festival. This premiere was recorded by the BBC and released on an ECM disc the following year. Understandably, performances of this lavish oratorio are rare, so this was something of a coup for the Coventry Jazz Festival. It was only the second jazz gig to be staged in Coventry Cathedral, the first having taken place way back in 1966, when Duke Ellington presented his In The Beginning, God concert of spirituals.
The Proverbs and Songs Prelude section features Surman's disembodied baritone saxophone. Here it reaped the huge reverb reward as he gradually materialised, walking up the aisle toward a makeshift stage. It was immediately apparent that real, in-the-flesh acoustics are far beyond what can be encapsulated on even the best-recorded compact disc.
John Taylor was hidden from view for most of the duration, sending his gargantuan organ improvisations up through the gleaming steel pipes. His lowest bass notes rumbled around the cathedral, appearing to emanate from the very walls themselves. At first, Taylor's flamboyant spills seemed to merge with Surman's baritone, continuing phrases and adding great weight down at the lowest end.
Surman, a former choirboy, has the look of a cloistered monk, with his pudding-basin haircut and all-black garb, but he still manages to let the devil's music encroach on this spiritual territory, opening up extended sections to saxophone and organ improvisation. Later in the piece he turns to soprano saxophone, saving the bass clarinet for the climactic "Abraham, Arise!"
The Salisbury Festival Chorus, dressed in a rainbow of bright shirts, were conducted by Howard Moody, who kept the Old Testament verses tight during "The Sons", "The Kings" and "Wisdom". The cathedral's natural acoustic once again became inseparable from the phrasing and timing, as each line hung in the air before eventually bouncing back. At one point the chorus descended into the audience, breaking their massed voices down into individually distinguishable parts. Then, with the penultimate "Proverbs", a lone declamation from the rear came as shock, prompting an insane babble of voices, a confusion of public debate as the singers reformed their ranks.
Surman presents his work with the trappings of formality, but he likes to gently subvert the setting with these theatrical devices, relishing the cathedral space. Proverbs and Songs rises out of the ancient choral tradition, but is also infused with the subtle traces of freely improvised jazz. Surman clearly enjoys these openings for spontaneous expression.
At the very end, composer and chorus once again melted into the congregation, but this time they exited the cathedral as they sang and played, leaving John Taylor to flood out his final bass tones, a gradually fading physical presence.
Although the basic oratorio form may well confound the average jazz listener, Surman succeeds in melding these contrasting disciplines, balancing pompous and gutsy, strict form and free flight. This might provide problems for the spiritually bereft, but Surman is pushing choral music to the very limits of the cathedral walls.