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John Surman: From Boy Choirs to Big Horns

By Published: August 31, 2009
Leader Sessions

Links that Surman has carried into his own projects. Abercrombie is making his first appearance on a Surman album, but DeJohnette has been involved in an occasional but ongoing duo with the reed man ever since The Amazing Adventures of Simon Simon. Documented more recently on 2002's live Invisible Nature—a largely improvised affair—it was followed up immediately by Free and Equal (2003). That was a more structurally ambitious project where, teamed up with The London Brass—a ten-piece ensemble of trumpets, trombones, euphonium and tuba—the duo worked in a far more fixed environs.

The number of Surman's albums that fall easily into the "jazz" category is, in fact, rather small, not that such definitions matter to him or his fans. More prevalent are solo/multi-tracked albums like A Biography of the Rev. Absalom Dawe (1995), a collaboration with church organ and choir (1997's Proverbs and Songs), and two albums where Surman and Chris Laurence have collaborated with a string quartet.

John SurmanCoruscating (2000) was the sextet's first album and challenged preconceptions of how chamber and improvised music can coexist. "I was asked to write something for string quartet," Surman explains, "for a group in Czechoslovakia. I did it, but I felt the problem I had was there was no weight in that string quartet to blow against. I thought if there was a bassist who could play a bit of time perhaps, and put some power into it, and in knowing Chris Laurence—who is special in that he's a good jazz player and a good orchestral player—someone who combines that and who knew a lot of string players, we said, 'Let's find a quartet.' The goal was to use a quartet where they should concentrate, get four people together who really want to do this. We did some rehearsing, just to try out the music, and I got a commission to write. They said, 'We'll give you a commission to write some stuff for the Bath Festival,' so I did it and it was up and running."

As successful as Coruscating was, when the sextet reconvened for 2007's The Spaces in Between, there had been some palpable growth. The string players were more comfortable in an improvised setting, the writing both more advanced and more open. Surman even revisited the title track to Where Fortune Smiles, with the strings turning it into a more definitive thing of beauty, and adapted a tune originally meant for Thimar, taking the project, temporarily, in a Middle Eastern direction. "We've kept in contact, and we've been playing, but not enough; not good, long tours," Surman says. "They are too expensive, but from time to time we have worked throughout the years and they've always been exciting concerts. They [the Trans4mation string quartet] drop everything and come, no matter what, and it's grown for two reasons: one, the players have grown more confident with the improvising aspects and, two, I've learned better how to write for them. I think you learn as you go, and I've learned how to give them more space and how to get them in on the action more. So I think it's a two way street. They've come toward me and I've moved toward them."

A recent project that has yet to be released in North America but is available from ECM in Europe, is Rain On The Window (2008), a sublimely beautiful project that teams Surman up with church organist Howard Moody, who conducted the choir on Proverbs and Songs. "You have to go back to Howard, who was the director of Proverbs and Songs," Surman explains. "We struck it off immediately. He has this very open approach to music making, and he loves dynamic energy, which he put into the choir. Eventually he became the organist, after John Taylor was busy and couldn't do it.

"He stepped in and played the organ, and as a former organ scholar at Kings College Oxford, obviously he knew something about instrument. Suddenly it turned out the reason he stopped playing the organ the past couple of years was the traditionalism, and of course you're not going to get any of those problems with me. So it was a chance to use the organ the way he wanted to, and we just did some work-shopping in the village of Penshurst in Kent, where they had a nice organ. But it was zero degrees; it was so cold! But we spent a few days there and tried this and tried that, and there was no problem, I made a little demo and sent it to Manfred and said, 'Are you interested?' He said, 'Yes, let's find a church,' and then we looked around and eventually I happened on this nice baroque organ in a church here [in Oslo] and we did it there.

"That's the great thing having Karin here, she knows a whole lot of people on the music scene [in Oslo], people who know what's what. She made a couple of phone calls asking, 'Where's a really good organ?' and she turned me onto a couple of places. We had a look, and it was excellent. I thought of doing it in the UK, but it was easier than moving all our instruments over there [laughter]. Howard could get on the plane with his wash bag and do the gig."

John Surman / Howard MoodyRain On The Window combines moving, spiritual compositions by Surman with some actual free improvisations that feel completely structured, as well as a couple of traditional tunes that are amongst the album's most pure and beautiful moments. Surman's saxophone—even on baritone, when he reaches into the upper register, it's clear, curiously fragile and warm, never brash—soars over Moody's often dense but highly evocative organ. "It's been quite a feature of the last couple of years for me," says Surman. "We've played in some wonderful cathedrals with some incredible instruments and it really gets across to the people. Howard is quite an interesting player and, as it has developed, we've stepped further out, which is the difference between the live shows and the recording. It's moved on a bit."

"O Waly Waly," a traditional tune, will be more familiar to most as "The Water is Wide," a song that's been covered countless times from artists ranging from folk singer James Taylor Quartet
James Taylor Quartet
James Taylor Quartet

organ, Hammond B3
to saxophonist and fellow ECM label-mate Charles Lloyd
Charles Lloyd
Charles Lloyd
, who made it the title track of his 2000 quintet album with the late drummer Billy Higgins
Billy Higgins
Billy Higgins
1936 - 2001
—and, John Abercrombie. "I knew it ['O Waly Waly,' and so did Howard, in the original version, which has got a piano copyright by Benjamin Britten. We both liked the tune, but we couldn't do the Benjamin Britten version, so we did something else. I found "I'm Troubled In Mind" in a collection of spirituals. It's a song that one of the slaves used to sing after the master had whipped him. It's too painful to relate, but the song is just so beautiful and powerful."

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