Ah, John Surman. When did the fire go out? In the case of this album it doesn't seem to matter, not when for all of its obvious craft the music never stands up and shouts. Okay, so all of the participants have creditable track records, but in this case their collective effort results in music that neither grabs the attention nor makes much of a claim on repeated listening.
In this instance a title like "No Finesse" is downright misleading as it's applied to a piece of music that's pretty much all finesse, with side orders of subtle but hardly engaging interplay and the kind of sly but antiseptic harmonic sense that in some ways remains a hallmark of the ECM sound.
Guitarist John Abercrombie comes into his own on "Kickback" riding with aplomb the rhythmic promptings of bassist Drew Gress and Jack DeJohnette on drums, and when DeJohnette and Surman on baritone sax indulge in a little duet on the same piece it makes for one of the highlights of the album, not least because the music gets both forceful and a little heavy.
But what of it? Sometimes -not least on the reading of Billy Strayhorn's "Chelsea Bridge"- it sounds as if the musicians could have done it in their sleep despite the fact that Surman's baritone sax tone is still a thing of singular beauty.
Ultimately the whole programme's all right and nothing more. Everything sounds like it could have been just another night on the bandstand, one in which true inspiration struck only intermittently but the participants ploughed on regardless, which might make the listener wonder if their time could be more constructively spent.
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