Fiona Burnett

by Mark Isaacs

Fiona Burnett
Soaring at Dawn
Suite for jazz trio and string quartet
ABC Jazz 067 199-2

This is a CD that really does ravish you straight away.

That Fiona Burnett is in all respects a virtuoso soprano saxophonist is evident from her extended unaccompanied playing that comprises Solitude, the first movement of this six-part suite. Burnett manages to evoke a transcendental mood of awe and reverence, leavened by some simply stunning filigree work that is in no way gratuitous. All is knitted together by a magnificent sound and impeccable intonation on an instrument which poses a major challenge in these vexed areas to even the finest players.

Burnett possesses an unfailing sense of line, her improvisations following an inner logic in which there is almost no rhetoric but pure invention and despite the deep emotionality of what she plays there is always present an unswerving sense of real control in her playing.

In the third movement Flight and the final movement Daylight Burnett shows that hard-edged, boisterous angularity also comes easily to her as the music takes off like a startled flock of birds. She also shows that she can use the tortured extremities of the instrument’s range to powerful and controlled effect.

Joining Burnett in the jazz trio part of the configuration is bassist Ben Robertson and drummer David Jones.

Robertson is a deft and lyrical soloist and a reliable ensemble stalwart who adds a very telling and human dimension to any group of which he is a part, although there are times where a more robust, earthy approach to his instrument would seem to be desirable.

Jones is an unsurpassed virtuoso and an original thinker on his instrument, whose ability to make his extraordinarily fleet figurations appear and disappear in an instant sometimes punctures the more reverent moods with just a hint of the flippancy of a stage magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat.

The string quartet is the Silo String Quartet, and it is apparent from the liner notes that at least the cellist Caerwen Martin is a capable improviser, providing an accomplished quasi-Indian solo in the fifth movement Raga. It appears that the rest of the music for the quartet is notated.

The quartet plays very well though they are mixed rather far back in the otherwise excellent sound production by Mal Stanley, making it difficult to fully assess their tone and ensemble. However it is clear that they are not fazed by the rhythmic problems of hooking up with a rhythm section in full flight (presumably without a conductor since none is credited).

About Fiona Burnett the composer I have a few reservations. Certainly the suite is a pleasing concept and architecture presenting a nicely balanced variety of very telling moods. But on the whole, I would say the playing far surpasses the writing. The actual writing is more of a vehicle that catalyses some powerful material from the players without being particularly memorable in and of itself. What Burnett has written certainly doesn’t leave a comparable impression to that which her playing does, though what Burnett and her colleagues play in response to her writing makes for a very strong musical statement indeed.

Unfortunately this deficiency is amplified by the fact that Burnett’s string quartet scoring is rather unimaginative, consisting of far too many long notes in rhythmic unison (with the exception of Raga, where this effect is clearly used as a deliberate and admirable device to evoke an Indian droned instrument). The string quartet tradition is distinguished by its propensity for real counterpoint and true independence of line. It seems a shame when this is watered-down to “pads” in rhythmic unison. I am sure that if Burnett stretched herself she would be capable of far more than this and if she hasn’t already done so should study the Debussy or Ravel string quartets to see what is possible from a string quartet in a deeply impressionistic context such as hers.

However, despite this the overall impact of the work (and particularly Burnett’s actual playing) is quite profound and is likely to deeply touch many listeners across both the jazz and classical genres to whom the critical points I have raised may not be much of an issue.