John Surman: From Boy Choirs to Big Horns
Surman quickly found himself in the burgeoning avant-garde scene in England, alongside other soon-to-be-big-names like trumpeter Kenny Wheeler, drummer Tony Oxley, and guitarist John McLaughlin, on whose classic debut, Extrapolation (Polydor, 1969), Surman would ultimately play. "It was an important time in a way, and not just in England, but in the way the avant-garde of jazz music was really the popular side of jazz at the time. I forget how many albums Coltrane's Ascension (Impulse!, 1965) sold, but it was thousands, and if you go back and listen to this stuff, this stuff is out there. That's a pretty unique situation, because normally it's unlikely that the avant-garde is the thing that the people want, and to be actually working and being professional at that time was pretty exciting.
"I think, simultaneously with this very entertaining stuff going on in the UK, this sort of thing was happening when we went to the festival in Switzerland with Mike Westbrook's band, probably in '67. We heard [singer] Karin Krog's group, which had [saxophonist] Jan Garbarek, [bassist] Arild Andersen and, I think, [drummer] Jon Christensen in it. From Denmark was [trumpeter] Palle Mikkelborg's group, and there were a heck of a lot of European musicians who suddenly appeared from under the woodwork as it were, some who'd been there for awhile.
"I remember doing a workshop in Hamburg with Erich Kleinschuster on trombone, and Albert Mangelsdorff had been around for awhile and actually was quite an influence on me. To me, he managed to play with a very distinctive voice, all his own, his own kind of phrasing, and I took that on board in the same way I took Kenny Wheeler on board. There are ways of getting around these changes and harmonies, and playing this stuff with different kinds of melodic things. At a point in my life when I had been really following Sonny Rollins and Trane, and all the big tenor players, thinking, 'Yeah, this is the way to go, why don't I sound like that, why can't I play like that, what's happening?' Then, listening to the other guys and thinking, 'Hang on a minute, how embarrassing would it be to play exactly like someone else and then go up on the bandstand with them?' You know that doesn't work."
The 1960s was a time where cross-pollination wasn't just going on, but was completely natural; considered nothing more than what people did. And so, while Surman was working on the outer edges of jazz, he was also intersecting with musicians from other arenas. It was great playing in the sixties in London," Surman says, "and one of the most exciting things was the diversity of the music. You had on one hand, the movement of Alexis Korner's Blues Inc, from which emerged Eric Clapton, Ginger Baker and Jack Brucethe whole bunch of guys, like The Stones, who were jamming and playing blues. Then, on the other hand, there comes Chris McGregor with The Blue Notes from South Africathey're in there. Then there are the guys from the West Indies who'd come over in the fifties with calypso stuff, which I became interested in playing. And, at the end of the sixties, the fusion thing started happening, with John Marshall coming through with Michael Gibbs, and McLaughlin; the wide diversity of the music that was happening."
It was, if fact, Surman's interest in calypso that led to his first, self-titled 1968 album and a three-record contract with Decca/Deram that also included his first collaboration with John Warren, How Many Clouds Can You See? (1969) and Tales of the Algonquin (1971). "That [a calypso tune] was actually put there because that was the commercial hook that got me my first album," Surman says. "Now people think, 'Strange thing to do,' but actually that's what got me the contract because that's what was so popular. We were working the clubs doing that stuff, and [producer] Peter Eden came along and said, 'Hey, let's record that.'"
But John Surman was about far more than calypso, and the music on the flip side of the original LP demonstrated a far more adventurous side to Surman, at a time where that kind of eclecticism was encouraged. Still, while many look to that time in England for its more forward-thinking music, the tradition continued to live on, and became another part of Surman's DNA, right up to Brewster's Rooster, where he delivers a tender reading of Billy Strayhorn's classic ballad, "Chelsea Bridge." "It was very open," says Surman, "but it's not as if there was no tradition of [traditional] jazz music in the UK. When you think of Tubby Hayes, he was an unbelievable tenor player, and I remember when I first came to London hanging outside Ronnie Scott's because I probably couldn't afford to go in, on a Monday, and hearing a jam session with Johnny Griffin and Tubby Hayes, tearing the shit out of each otherunbelievableand having a wonderful time.
"I know that [the man] who was on the door sort of looked at me, and said 'I'm looking the other way mate,' as I slipped in the door, and they were just having such fun. It was unbelievable. And the rhythm sections, the bass players were flopping over, trying to keep pace with these guys but it was just great. It wasn't that British jazz evolved from absolutely nothing; Ronnie Scott himself was a really good player, and looking back, guys like Victor Feldman came out of that group."
But at the same time that Surman was exploring a multitude of styles on his first three Deram albums, he'd met bassist Barre Phillips and drummer Stu Martin, two American expats who had already established reputations on the more experimental side of jazz. "Some of the excitement had drifted away when the lease ran out on the old Ronnie Scott's," Surman recalls, "and we got to the end of the sixties and there wasn't a lot of work if you really wanted to play. And so when Barre and Stu independently drifted through town and said they were staying in Europe for a while to work, I grabbed the chance to play with them. The reason we didn't live in the UK were union reasons, and because of work permits, so we headed out to Belgium, rented a farmhouse and hung out there and played. We got on the road with The Trio, and that's where my real association with American musicians began. I got some experience playing in San Francisco and Manhattan."
The Trio would become well-known amongst the more experimental-minded, releasing two important recordsthe double-LP set, The Trio (1970) and Conflagration (1971), both on Dawn. Both have been collected into Glancing Backwards: The Dawn Anthology (Sanctuary, 2006), a three-CD set that also includes a 1976 all-improvised duet date for Surman and Martin, Live at Woodstock Town Hall (1976), and Where Fortune Smiles (1971), which has also been available under John McLaughlin's name in the past. A quintet date for Surman, McLaughlin and Martin, alongside Dave Holland and German vibraphonist Karl Berger, Where Fortune Smiles splits compositional duties between the saxophonist and guitarist, but is far freer than the fusion-centric music McLaughlin was pursuing with his nascent Mahavishnu Orchestrathough it does include an early, far more out and nearly unrecognizable version of the guitarist's "Hope," which would later appear on MO's Birds of Fire (Columbia, 1973).
Surman's broad purview, what would become a defining characteristic of his entire career, also entered the space of Miles Davis-informed British fusion of groups like Soft Machine, though with the 2005 release of Way Back When (Cuneiform), a 1969 session that included John Taylor, bassist Brian Odgers and Nucleus drummer John Marshall (who would join Soft Machine in 1972), it's certainly no question as to who influenced who.
Country and continent-hopping, by the mid-'70s Surman had amassed a sizable discography both as a leader and guest; but most important was, whether he was playing in a more completely free context with Stu Martin or in the more composed context of his larger ensemble work on How Many Clouds Can You See?, his voice on bass clarinet, soprano and baritone saxophones, and the relationships that he had built with a large cadre of players, established him as an important voice on horns that rarely got a lot of frontline feature. With his inherent eclecticism, and some of his musical associates already finding their way to ECM Records, it was only a matter of time before he was approached by Manfred Eicher. "As I remember, Manfred had been interested in recording me and maybe even The Trio way back in the seventies, but I was already on the record contract thing," says Surman. "I was kind of spoken for much of the seventies, and then I got absolutely fed up with these old-fashioned contracts, which usually meant your album comes out, and a little fuss about it; then the second one...hmm, they kind of realize jazz is not as commercial as they thought it might've been; and the third one, where you try and get rid of it as quickly as you can."