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Artist Profiles

John Surman: Listen and Trust

By Published: September 5, 2009
Surman says, "For the first 15 years or so of my career, all I really wanted to do was play—blow. But there were other kinds of music in me that were trying to get out. I grew up in a home that listened to the BBC's Third Programme, which was classical music. It got inside my bones. There were feelings evoked by the sound of that music—the sound of a string group, the sound of a brass ensemble, orchestral sounds... But if I wanted to get those sounds into my jazz work, I had to write the stuff myself. It didn't exist in another form."

A confluence of great importance, in terms of Surman's need to "get other kinds of music...out," has been his partnership with the ECM label and its legendary producer, Manfred Eicher. Surman says, "Manfred is a real producer. He likes to get his hands dirty. If I'm doing a solo project, overlaying stuff, Manfred is brilliant at logging it. He'll say, 'Listen, check this out, why not start with this?' He is fascinated by newness. He likes to be involved in the adventure. You might have a quartet session where a piece is going along and then starts to tail off and you think the thing is over but Manfred picks up on something, some mood and you see him waving through the window, 'Keep it going, keep it going! Just hang in there, lads!'"

Because Eicher, like Surman, thinks outside of genre, they have together built a unique body of work, 34 titles and counting, which is extraordinary in its creative strength and breadth. If this writer were forced to choose one of Surman's ECM albums to take to a desert island, it would be Coruscating, from 1999. It contains his writing for his own saxophones and clarinets (including contrabass), bassist Chris Laurence and a string quartet and is a deep meditation, a complex of rapt moods evolving in whispers. Surman says that this ensemble is one of his favorites. It has an extensive repertoire, performs regularly in Europe and now has a second album out, The Spaces In Between, from 2006.

Ordinarily, you expect jazz musicians to make jazz albums. But coming from John Surman, who has long been identified with the esoteric, his new disc Brewster's Rooster is surprising precisely because it is a jazz date. For the session, Surman got together with two of his oldest friends, DeJohnette and guitarist John Abercrombie, new friend and bassist Drew Gress, wrote several new tunes and recorded some ballads and some burners. Still, Brewster's Rooster is anything but straight-ahead. It is music open to wide space and possibility. DeJohnette and Gress conjure atmospheres of energy in which Abercrombie and Surman swoop and swerve and slide sideways.

But whatever the musical environment—whether he is functioning as one third of Anouar Brahem's stark, exotic, interactive trio, accompanying himself on synthesizer with infectious grooves or melding with an 80-voice chorus—two qualities of Surman's playing have continuity. The first is, on all his reed instruments, at all levels of intensity, his clear, pure tone. Surman credits Wilfred Kealey and also the fact that he started in music as a singer. "My playing," he says, "is a form of singing."

The other quality is that he does not employ cliches or licks. His lines veer in surprising directions. Surman attributes this quality of unpredictability to the fact that he is always closely listening: "I think it's about listening for opportunities, having the sensibility to hear possibilities to move with, in what other people play. Just listen and trust."

Recommended Listening:

John McLaughlin, Extrapolation (Marmalade-Polydor, 1969)

The Trio, Eponymous (Dawn-BGO, 1970)

Alan Skidmore/Mike Osborne/John Surman, S.O.S. (Ogun, 1974)

John Surman, Adventure Playground (ECM, 1991)

John Surman/Jack DeJohnette, Invisible Nature (ECM, 2002)

John Surman, Brewster's Rooster (ECM, 2007)

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