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Interviews

John Surman: From Boy Choirs to Big Horns

By Published: August 31, 2009
Jack DeJohnette

When Surman references "Jack and I play[ing] together," he's speaking of their longtime duet. This began with the studio disc The Amazing Adventures of Simon Simon (ECM, 1981), has continued in the ensuing years and was documented live on Invisible Nature (ECM, 2002), and has now expanded to include African kora master Foday Musa Suso and the reed man's son Ben (as engineer and remixer) as The Ripple Effect, releasing one album to date, Hybrids (Kindred Rhythms, 2005). DeJohnette and Surman are also linked personally, with Ben Surman marrying the drum icon's daughter, Minya, a few years ago.

But Surman and DeJohnette's relationship dates to before they actually began playing together. "Jack was playing at Ronnie Scott's [in London, England] with Bill Evans
Bill Evans
Bill Evans
1929 - 1980
piano
and Eddie [Gomez]," Surman recounts, "so in the afternoons, I think Dave Holland
Dave Holland
Dave Holland
b.1946
bass
and John Marshall were working opposite with Elaine Delmar, and Jack got the word out to come for a jam session in the afternoons. Me being close to both the other guys, they said come down and play with Jack. So I went and Jack was there with his melodica and I went and played, but what got Jack and me together was the sense of humor, because he's married to an English lady, Lydia.

John Surman l:r: John Surman, John Abercrombie, Drew Gress, Jack DeJohnette

"Somehow he got introduced to a couple of the new comedy shows that were hot at the time, one in particular called The Goon Show, and I was a good a mimic of those guys so I got him laughing about them. We had all those sayings and catch phrases, and I think it was more in the early stages, where we'd bump into each other, or the odd phone call where we'd get into this hysterical laughter at these things. We became friends on that basis before anything really happened with the music, but we had played together for a bit, and I did go over to Woodstock in 1973 or 1974 and stayed there for several months, as there wasn't a great deal going on after The Trio. I went up with [drummer] Stu Martin, stayed there for a while and hung out a little at Jack's and played a little with his band, with [saxophonist] Alex Foster
Alex Foster
Alex Foster
b.1953
saxophone
and John Abercrombie and [bassist ] Peter Warren
Peter Warren
b.1935
. I did a couple gigs with them, had a few jams, and Dave was over there [in America] and McLaughlin was over there, and it seemed to me that I should move to America. But then work came up in Europe and I ended up working with the Paris Opera, which was really good work, interesting stuff, and I was there for about four or five years."

Beginnings

Surman first emerged in the mid-1960s, a time that was considered something of a Golden Age in the UK, but as the saxophonist points out, "the time was pretty exciting, whether you were in England, Norway, or in Germany." But the real roots of Surman's music—a vulnerable tone on his horns and an approach that's profoundly lyrical and deeply emotive, regardless of context—go back to the days before he'd even considered picking up an instrument. "It's probably worth going back my early experience making music as a boy soprano," says Surman. "I had quite a special boy soloist voice, and I did a lot of singing when I was growing up in Plymouth, as part of a chorus in church. Once a few people discovered I could really sing I did the oratorial thing as a soloist at Christmas and Easter, so that whole experience of singing is inside me."

The pastoral, even spiritual aspect of some of Surman's music surely comes from this early experience, where he was exposed to the works of British composers like Benjamin Britten. "I suppose I must've started singing when I was ten, until my voice broke," Surman continues. "So at that time, I had maybe four years of singing and I really enjoyed it, and I would work with organs and choirs, and sometimes other orchestras. So I got this music inside me. The music going on at home was more based on classical radio, and my dad played piano but tended to play Beethoven, although he did have a soft spot for Fats Waller
Fats Waller
Fats Waller
1904 - 1943
piano
.

"But I didn't really get to hear any jazz until I was in my early teens, and then I started to hear Alexis Korner
Alexis Korner
Alexis Korner
1928 - 1984
guitar
's blues programs, and there was a traditional jazz revival going on the in the UK at the end of the '50s that I picked up on. Soon after my voice broke, I bought a clarinet, with the idea of joining in with this kind of music. I didn't know how I was going to do it, but I bought a second hand clarinet and taught myself to play it. I ended up in the local jazz club on Friday nights, standing in the corner behind the band and just playing along. That's how I learned to play really, along with the radio and a few records I managed to get. At school there was not much in the way of facilities, but there was the piano and the national songbook, so I was singing a lot of folk songs. So, all that's inside of me.

"If I grew up in Chicago, with the blues, I would have a different sound, and it would be a different music. But all of us are influenced by the first music that we get inside, that moves us. Music is a very emotional attachment to people; it gets inside you, and you identify certain music with certain moods and certain times of your life. Considering the first twelve years of my life, since I wasn't exposed to jazz there's a lot of weird and wonderful stuff inside that finally ends up getting mixed in. But I think it's important to say that once I got to this point being interested in jazz I discovered that there was Peter Russell's hot record store in Plymouth. He was a mail order specialist, which you really needed in those days, to get records from the States and so forth. He just happened to be in Plymouth—he could've been anywhere really—and he took me under his wing. When he first met me, I was listening to British traditional jazz bands and I think he said, 'Listen, this is Louis Armstrong
Louis Armstrong
Louis Armstrong
1901 - 1971
trumpet
and Bix Beiderbecke
Bix Beiderbecke
Bix Beiderbecke
1903 - 1931
cornet
,' and I'm gung ho."

John SurmanWith alto and tenor saxophones the more obvious horns of choice, how Surman came to the baritone is, perhaps, more obvious than might be expected. "There were two saxophones in the music store window, and one was an alto, the other a baritone," Surman explains. "Both were 37 pounds, 10 shillings, and I thought, 'Wow, value for money!' Plus, being fascinated by instruments, I thought, 'Ah, I have to know what that sounds like.' I had a paper round, and I borrowed money from my dad.

"His idea of disaster would be for me to have a career in music, and this is growing up after the war, and growing up in Plymouth with the idea that job security is important. So I went into the store and blew on this baritone, and when I got down to low C I think I had my first serious sexual experience; my whole body vibrated. Then I said to Peter, 'I've got this baritone.' He put on Harry Carney
Harry Carney
Harry Carney
1910 - 1974
sax, baritone
, and said, 'This is what it's supposed to sound like.' So I didn't have much time to wonder, and I've been trying to sound like that ever since [laughs]."

Surman did study music in college, but at the end of the day most of what he's done has been through self-study and collaborating with others. "It sounds a bit strange for someone who went to music college for three years," says Surman, "but in point of fact I have to be brutally honest and say I don't think that there's much I learned at music college that really showed me how to deal with the music that I write now. We did an awful lot of basic harmony. But there were no jazz studies in those days and it was like going from high school into another high school, like 'Yes sir, no sir,' and you couldn't study the sax because it wasn't an orchestral instrument, and on and on. Very basic; lots of rules, and writing counterpoint was kind of useful, maybe, but I don't think my head was there at all. I was eventually working my way into a few big bands, becoming a professional musician and playing blues with Alexis, who didn't gel too well with harmony."


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