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John Surman: Flashpoint: NDR Jazz Workshop - April '69

John Kelman By

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1969 was a watershed year for John Surman. He released his eponymous debut on Dutton Vocalion that year, but it was the recording session for How Many Clouds Can You See? (Vocalion, 1970), that made the year of Woodstock and man's first steps on the moon so portentous for the 25 year-old saxophonist An album effortlessly joining large and small ensembles—right down to a burning duet with drummer Alan Richard Jackson that alluded to John Coltrane's incendiary pairing with Rashied Ali, but also demonstrated Surman's economy and thematic focus—it became Surman's first true statement as a definitive composer, performer and bandleader.

The Coltrane connection can also be heard on "Mayflower," the burning modal opener to Flashpoint: NDR Jazz Workshop—April '69, a golden find of a German television performance, rescued from obscurity by Cuneiform Records and released as a double-disc set with both an audio CD and DVD of the same five-track set. Surman's soprano solo is an incendiary combination of visceral trills and screams, but even its greatest extremes reflect the underlying pastoral melodism that distinguished Surman, even at this relatively early stage in his career. With a ten-piece ensemble culled from the cream of the late-'60s British jazz crop along with a couple of lesser-known Germans, Surman's recruitment of Kenny Wheeler makes Flashpoint an even greater find, standing significantly alongside BGO Records' rescue of the trumpeter's criminally out-of-print debut as a leader, Windmill Tilter (Fontana, 1969) . Wheeler's flugelhorn solo on the change-heavy, waltz-time "Once Upon a Time" demonstrates everything that has made Wheeler a quiet legend, in particular his melancholy-drenched lyricism, tinged with unexpected leaps into the stratosphere with almost unparalleled control and precision.

The set list may be identical on the CD and DVD, but the black and white video stretches out another five minutes, Surman's between-song discussion with his band mates revealing the saxophonist as a focused but relaxed and warm—and occasionally boisterously funny—bandleader. There's also a brief, of-its-time moment when the camera focuses on saxophonists Mike Osborne and Ronnie Scott, lighting up cigarettes while Surman discusses "The Puzzle" with its composer, trombonist Erich Kleinschuster, who's featured alongside trombonist Malcolm Griffiths on this bright and brass-heavy track. But it's the music and the combined solo firepower of Surman's band that make Flashpoint such a treasure, despite its relatively brevity at just over forty minutes. Tenor saxophonist Alan Skidmore's solo on "Once Upon a Time" rivals Surman for potency and subconscious compositional intent, while the leader's closing baritone solo on the title track—a combination of expressionistic free play and frenetic swing that also features a fiery solo from Osborne—brings the show to a powerful close.

Surman continued to explode creatively in the next year, moving into electric territory with another Cuneiform rescue, 1969's Way Back When (2005) and the formation of freewheeling The Trio, with bassist Barre Phillips and drummer Stu Martin. Flashpoint adds further detail to the picture of Surman's early years, where a myriad of promises emerged concurrently, to ultimately merge into one of jazz's most distinctive voices on the big and little horns.

Track Listing: Mayflower; Once Upon a Time; Puzzle; Gratuliere; Flashpoint.

Personnel: John Surman: soprano and baritone saxophones; Alan Skidmore: tenor saxophone, flute; Ronnie Scott: tenor saxophone; Mike Osborne: alto saxophone; Malcolm Griffiths: trombone; Erich Kleinschuster: trombone; Kenny Wheeler: trumpet, flugelhorn; Fritz Pauer: piano; Harry Miller: bass; Alan Jackson: drums.

Title: Flashpoint: NDR Jazz Workshop - April '69 | Year Released: 2011 | Record Label: Cuneiform Records

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