As in most European countries, jazz in Britain prior to the '60s was largely a copycat of its American counterparts. But with the emergence of artists like trumpeters Harry Beckett and Kenny Wheeler, bassists Graham Collier and Harry Miller, and saxophonists Stan Sulzmann and Alan Skidmore, a very specific yet remarkably diverse complexion began to emerge.
From his emergence in the mid-'60s to 1971, baritone/soprano saxophonist John Surman appeared on nearly forty recordings, including some that would ultimately prove particularly influential: guitarist John McLaughlin's '69 debut, Extrapolation, composer/arranger Mike Gibbs' self-titled debut, and bandleader Mike Westbrook's Concert Band albums. He'd already demonstrated the kind of voracious musical appetite that we often think is more the domain today's younger artists, exploring the pre-Soft Machine fusion of Way Back When, the free-thinking explorations of The Trio with bassist Barre Phillips and drummer Stu Martin, and the surprising calypso on his '68 self-titled debut.
And so, Surman's nascent musical relationship with fellow reed player/large ensemble composer John Warrenlike Kenny Wheeler, a Canadian ex-patwas really no surprise. In fact, the late '60s and early '70s were a particularly vibrant time for big band music in the UK, but with a kind of experimentation that truly represented of the era, creating more of a thinking person's ensemble instead of the dance-oriented big band music of previous decades. Vocalion's reissue of Surman and Warren's first collaboration, Tales of the Algonquin, is especially welcome since so much of their work together over the years has gone undocumented. (They would later release the '93 ECM recording The Brass Project.)
With the five-part title suite and four additional tracks all written by Warren, the album clearly belongs more to him. Surman is the primary soloist, but there are plenty of strong contributions from well-known band members including Wheeler, saxophonist Mike Osborne, and pianist John Taylora relative newcomer who already demonstrates an innate and personal lyricism.
The music ranges from brashly swinging full-section charts like "With Terry's Help," where Surman's powerful soprano solo demonstrates just how quickly he'd evolved into a singular voice, to the more delicately balladic and Gil Evans-inflected "The Dandelion." Despite the scripting inherent in this kind of large ensemble work, there's a refreshing looseness and sense of unfettered exploration throughout. Warren's charts allow for plenty of breathing space, most notably during the 7/4 solo vamp of "Shengebis and the North Wind," where drummers Stu Martin and Alan Jackson create a polyrhythmic maelstrom beneath Harry Beckett's more towards-the-centre trumpet solo.
With so much vital music created in what many view as the golden age of British jazz, it's important that companies like Vocalion are finally making seminal recordings like Tales of the Algonquin available on CD, bringing them to familiar audiences who have been waiting for these reissues for a long timeand perhaps more importantly, to new listeners unfamiliar with this significant period when British jazz finally asserted its own voice.
Personnel: Martin Drover (trumpet, flugelhorn); Kenny Wheeler (trumpet, flugelhorn); Harry Beckett (trumpet, flugelhorn); Malcolm Griffiths (trombone); Ed Harvey (trombone); Danny Almark (trombone); Mike Osbourne (alto saxophone, clarinet); Stan Sulzmann (alto saxophone, soprano saxophone, flute); Alan Skidmore (tenor saxophone, flute, alto flute); John Surman (baritone saxophone, soprano saxophone); John Warren (baritone saxophone, flute); John Taylor (piano); Harry Miller (bass); Barre Phillips (bass); Alan Jackson (drums); Stu Martin (drums)