John Surman: From Boy Choirs to Big Horns

John Kelman By

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It's increasingly risky to be a musician on the road. When British saxophonist John Surman was traveling from his home in Oslo, Norway, to New York City in September, 2007 for a recording session, he almost lost his baritone saxophone to the airlines. "It is a nightmare traveling now," says Surman, "and hardly a tour goes by without something going missing, and of course there's the damage problem. Nowadays you get one handbag, which of course is my soprano, so I always have that; and wherever possible, I'll perhaps take the baritone mouthpiece in case worse comes to worst. But that being a metal mouthpiece, it's always a trouble at security. The security guards think I've got a snub nose revolver or something. I don't know what they think I'm gonna do with a metal mouthpiece [laughs].

"With a heavy instrument like the baritone, unless you have the most enormous case it's always risky. I've got, as far as I know, one of the best flight cases money can buy, but my baritone got completely wrecked on the way over to the session."

Fortunately, for Surman, Tim Barcone was available. "It was that chap in Kingston, New York, who turned out to be a baritone player himself," Surman explains, "and had maintained Howard Johnson's horn in the past. He got up early in the morning, worked for four or five hours, and put together what was an unplayable instrument for me, so he really deserved his little mention there"—there being the liner notes to Brewster's Rooster (ECM, 2009), Surman's latest in a three decade-plus string of releases for the German label, and his first "jazz" recording, at least in the more conventional sense of the word, in many years.

Chapter Index
  1. Brewster's Rooster
  2. Jack DeJohnette
  3. Beginnings
  4. Emerging in the '60s and '70s
  5. Coming to ECM
  6. Sideman Sessions
  7. Leader Sessions
  8. Oslo and Keeping It Fresh

Brewster's Rooster

Brewster's Rooster features friends old and new—guitarist John Abercrombie and drummer Jack DeJohnette, with whom Surman has intersected many times over the past four decades, and Drew Gress, here not only a first encounter for Surman, but the bassist's first recording for ECM. It's as strong a statement as any of Surman's recent albums, including Rain On The Window (ECM, 2008), his duet with church organist Howard Moody that's still waiting for North American release, and The Spaces in Between (ECM, 2007), a second collaboration, after Coruscating (ECM, 2000), with the Trans4mation string quartet and bassist Chris Laurence, a longtime musical partner.

Surman's distinctive voice on both baritone and soprano saxophone—a pure tone that eschews the more nasally soprano tone normally adopted by post-John Coltrane saxophonists and reaches high into the baritone's upper range for a surprisingly fragile, emotive sound—can be heard all over Brewster's Rooster, but what's missing is his equally unmistakable bass clarinet. With modern tales of travel woes driving artists to make decisions that are far from artistic, there's no bass clarinet on Brewster's Rooster simply because it would have been far too complicated to bring the instrument with him on the flight. "It's difficult," says Surman. "I don't think any of us as musicians would mind paying a little premium for some proper treatment. But the fact is that, on a trip I just did, the Norwegian airlines said 'Oh, it's a musical instrument, it's a little extra for that because we have to take more care of it.' And when I arrived at Gatwick [London, UK], here comes my bass clarinet down the same slide, crashing down, with everyone else's luggage.

"So it's nonsense and it becomes a bit of a drag. I understand that Dave Liebman just takes a soprano now. I don't want to do that, and people are sometimes kind of disappointed I don't have the bass clarinet as well as baritone and soprano. But bringing it, because there are other gigs with the group, it becomes too scary. It's become like that, and I'm not alone in the problem. I don't even have the worst instrument; it's the bass players that now have to carry around little mini instruments. However much they say, 'Oh, well, it sounds good,' you know deep in the bottom of their heart they're saying 'My god, I wish I had my real bass.'"

Surman's decision to bring together Abercrombie, DeJohnette and Gress for the session was an easy one. "I had just finished up Rain On The Window with Howard [Moody] here is Oslo, and [ECM head] Manfred [Eicher] said, 'Maybe it'd be nice for us to do a jazz album, and what would you fancy?' Jack [DeJohnette] came to mind, and John Abercrombie immediately came to mind, and what also came to mind was the fact that Jack had said to me, at least a couple years before, 'You should check out Drew Gress, he's a really nice bassist, and you might like to play with him.'

"I heard him playing with Uri Caine at the London Jazz Festival, and I was playing opposite—I was playing with the BBC concert orchestra doing some of my music. Drew was over there doing Uri's music, and so we briefly met and I thought, 'Yeah, this is the kind of guy I could get on with,' just talking to him briefly. I listened to his playing and he sounded great. So I said [to Eicher], 'Well, how about Drew Gress?' and that was it. After a while of trying to find a date when these three guys could be in the same place at the same time, we got it together. I have to say, at the outset, that I never really expected this to be a kind of working group, but I thought they were just a nice combination of people I'd like to play with, and make an album with—really, more than anything. The fact that we got some gigs with it is an absolute bonus."

John SurmanWith a series of dates at Washington, DC's Blues Alley and Birdland in New York, Surman and his quartet will have the opportunity to expand on the instantaneous chemistry of Brewster's Rooster in a live setting. With nothing more than a single rehearsal—"I was more comfortable to just say 'Hi' to everybody before we walked into the studio," Surman says—the quartet entered Avatar Studio, in New York, to lay down tracks that, in the fullest spirit of spontaneous creation, were little more than melody lines and changes, in order to allow the most freedom while still possessing a basic roadmap.

Armed with one standard, a number of new tunes written with this group in mind, and two that have been a part of Surman's live repertoire but are recorded by the reed man here for the first time—the elegant oddly named waltz, "No Finesse," and buoyant closer, "Going for a Burton," the latter recorded by Chris Laurence on his long overdue debut as a leader, Nice View (Basho, 2007)—Brewster's Rooster mixes fiery near-free improvisation with more structured concerns. "I knew what we were going to do so I dug around," says Surman. "I thought, 'Well, it'd be nice to play those pieces with these guys,' and then I thought, 'What else might work?' So I sat down and wrote two or three new lines that I thought fit the work, and a couple of others that aren't on there that we didn't get around to. There were a couple of possibilities that we didn't do. I though about doing a beautiful ballad of Wayne Shorter's called "Virgo," since I am a Virgo. We ran down a couple of other things, but when we got in the studio the music took care of itself."

Take care of itself, it did. Brewster's Rooster may feel largely like a mainstream album, but the depth of the interplay amongst the four players, and the spontaneous flights of fancy on tracks like "Haywain" prove that it's possible to be both freely intended and thematically focused at the same time. "There just happened to be the line "Haywain" lying in front of us all on the music stand," Surman explains, "and that was more or less it. I just hinted at it; if you don't know the whole melody, I just played a little bit of the beginning and the guys went, 'Oh, yeah, okay,' and that was the end. I don't think we discussed it at all. So that was completely free improv. Jack said, 'Come on, let's just play,' so we did."

What little was on the chart left plenty of room for everyone in the group to do what they do best. Other than the basic melody and, in most cases, a set of changes, nothing else was specified, including chord voicings. "It's very open; I think there were one or two places where I suggested [voicing] possibilities and, for the life of me now, I can't remember whether he [John Abercrombie] followed them or not," Surman recounts. "This method of working with musicians who can improvise and are of that quality, this is the way I like to work.

"I don't really dot Is and cross Ts with people like that because their inspiration is, nine times out of ten, more interesting than stuff that I might put together for them. In this kind of context, this is the joy of this kind of open style of making music. I have other projects that I do, like the string quartet stuff, where there's a great deal of dotted Is and crossed Ts—that's that music—but to play with these guys, I'm interested in them feeling comfortable, so they can slip into the pieces like a comfortable set of clothes. I want the music to be comfortable for them to play so that they can as much make it their own as mine, really; that it gives them a springboard to be themselves and we can play together in that way. That's the idea of it all, so it's as open as possible without being so vague as to be a waste of time."

While Manfred Eicher is listed as producer on the session, and did provide his usual input in sequencing the finished tracks into the order heard on Brewster's Rooster, this was a relatively rare occasion when he wasn't on hand in the studio, to contribute ideas during the session. "At the original recording session, Manfred was ill," says Surman, "and he couldn't come. So I engineered the results and he more or less said, 'Well, you'll be okay, won't you, you'll be happy doing it with Jack.' And I said, 'Yeah, no problem at all.' So that was it. We did it [mixed the record], and there were a couple of e-mails exchanged, where Manfred made one or two suggestions about what he thought would be a nice order of the pieces—and which was more or less what I thought—but he did contribute, as usual, one or two constructive ideas, and that was it."

In the pursuit of the freshest possible take, Surman used largely first takes— or, at least, the first take that was usable, but for reasons not related to the actual performance. "Usually when we get in the studio, the first one [tune]—I forget which—we usually do two or three times, because it's usually about getting comfortable hearing each other and everything" Surman explains. "I don't think there was much to choose musically between takes, usually you hit a music stand, or there's a pot on the amp, or the amp goes. There might've been a few takes but it was never a case of having to do things or edit stuff together. It's more or less as you hear it. Usually you might run something down just to get it until it feels right and then do a take."

As original as it is, there's an aspect of Brewster's Rooster that recalls an earlier, overlooked ECM classic on which Surman also played: guitarist Mick Goodrick's In Pas(s)ing (1979). With a parallel line-up featuring DeJohnette and bassist Eddie Gomez, it's no surprise that similarities exist, despite the 30-year gap between the two recordings. "Well you've got fifty percent of the same musicians, which would help," Surman says, chuckling.

Mick Goodrick / John SurmanStill, despite Goodrick being credited with the writing, the melodic content sounds very much like something Surman would write. As it turns out, it's a lesser-known truth about the recording. "Someone else I spoke to recently also pointed out that they hear [John McLaughlin's] Extrapolation (Polydor, 1969) on it," Surman says, "and I can identify with both of those feelings, though I can't say that I thought too much about it in any way, because there are different people involved, and I was really thinking about John and Drew and Jack [for Brewster's Rooster]. So if it comes out that way, it's possibly because on Mick's record, apart from one piece, all of tunes were just chord sequences. So the melodic part of it, the stuff I play, is my improv. 'Summer Band Camp' had a written line, but all the rest of it was just chord sequences. So there you have it, you would've gotten my melodic input there straightway; I'm composing the lines—the heads, if you like—so maybe that's a part of it."

As is often the case, live performances become more outgoing, with the group feeding off both itself and the audience in ways that don't happen in the studio. A live, 2002 BBC radio broadcast of Surman's longtime group with pianist John Taylor, Chris Laurence and drummer John Marshall shows just how different material from Stranger Than Fiction (ECM, 1994) can be, when the group takes a more energetic approach. "Stranger than Fiction was quite controlled, actually," says Surman. "There's a difference when you're playing live and you've got this continuous flow of music. When you're recording, you do a track, then stop, and then another track in a different feel, and so on. So it's about playing one set where things get stoked up more, or the time factor creeps in, or something. But there's no question that anybody who's got something to play will tell you, when you're going to a recording studio, as soon as the red light comes on, it's harder. [laughs].

"There's a consciousness about being recorded that may make one a little more careful. When you do it, some chaps are going to listen to it and say 'Oh gosh, is he playing out of tune?' whereas when you're live, you're out in the world, and it's in the air. Like Eric Dolphy said, 'It's out there, it's in the air and then it's gone'; there is that feeling that you're not going to have to explain it to everyone else afterwards. When you make an album, someone will say to you afterwards, 'Do you think...,' just as we're doing now."

In the more perfect environment of a good studio, it's possible to hear the decay of every note, and everyone in the group can hear each other, even if (as is often the case) the drummer is separated out into a drum booth—as is the case at Avatar, though it's still possible for everyone in the group to have eye contact. "The tendency is that you get to hear more detail, so perhaps you react in a more detailed kind of way; where maybe there is sometimes more nuance in the recording. I do enjoy the recording process anyway—I can certainly say that it's different than the live experience. Whether it's more valuable or less valuable, to me it's just different, equally interesting and exciting. There are things that work in studios that are harder to bring off outside, and maybe vice versa. What will happen with this group [Abercrombie, Gress, DeJohnette] as we get going live, I have no idea, but I can imagine it'll head off in a number of different directions, and each night stands a chance of being quite different. If Jack and I play together, it's often quite different from night-to-night, so adding John and Drew to the mix is only going to make it head off to even more different places."

Jack DeJohnette

When Surman references "Jack and I play[ing] together," he's speaking of their longtime duet. This began with the studio disc The Amazing Adventures of Simon Simon (ECM, 1981), has continued in the ensuing years and was documented live on Invisible Nature (ECM, 2002), and has now expanded to include African kora master Foday Musa Suso and the reed man's son Ben (as engineer and remixer) as The Ripple Effect, releasing one album to date, Hybrids (Kindred Rhythms, 2005). DeJohnette and Surman are also linked personally, with Ben Surman marrying the drum icon's daughter, Minya, a few years ago.

But Surman and DeJohnette's relationship dates to before they actually began playing together. "Jack was playing at Ronnie Scott's [in London, England] with Bill Evans and Eddie [Gomez]," Surman recounts, "so in the afternoons, I think Dave Holland and John Marshall were working opposite with Elaine Delmar, and Jack got the word out to come for a jam session in the afternoons. Me being close to both the other guys, they said come down and play with Jack. So I went and Jack was there with his melodica and I went and played, but what got Jack and me together was the sense of humor, because he's married to an English lady, Lydia.

John Surman l:r: John Surman, John Abercrombie, Drew Gress, Jack DeJohnette

"Somehow he got introduced to a couple of the new comedy shows that were hot at the time, one in particular called The Goon Show, and I was a good a mimic of those guys so I got him laughing about them. We had all those sayings and catch phrases, and I think it was more in the early stages, where we'd bump into each other, or the odd phone call where we'd get into this hysterical laughter at these things. We became friends on that basis before anything really happened with the music, but we had played together for a bit, and I did go over to Woodstock in 1973 or 1974 and stayed there for several months, as there wasn't a great deal going on after The Trio. I went up with [drummer] Stu Martin, stayed there for a while and hung out a little at Jack's and played a little with his band, with [saxophonist] Alex Foster and John Abercrombie and [bassist ] Peter Warren. I did a couple gigs with them, had a few jams, and Dave was over there [in America] and McLaughlin was over there, and it seemed to me that I should move to America. But then work came up in Europe and I ended up working with the Paris Opera, which was really good work, interesting stuff, and I was there for about four or five years."


Surman first emerged in the mid-1960s, a time that was considered something of a Golden Age in the UK, but as the saxophonist points out, "the time was pretty exciting, whether you were in England, Norway, or in Germany." But the real roots of Surman's music—a vulnerable tone on his horns and an approach that's profoundly lyrical and deeply emotive, regardless of context—go back to the days before he'd even considered picking up an instrument. "It's probably worth going back my early experience making music as a boy soprano," says Surman. "I had quite a special boy soloist voice, and I did a lot of singing when I was growing up in Plymouth, as part of a chorus in church. Once a few people discovered I could really sing I did the oratorial thing as a soloist at Christmas and Easter, so that whole experience of singing is inside me."

The pastoral, even spiritual aspect of some of Surman's music surely comes from this early experience, where he was exposed to the works of British composers like Benjamin Britten. "I suppose I must've started singing when I was ten, until my voice broke," Surman continues. "So at that time, I had maybe four years of singing and I really enjoyed it, and I would work with organs and choirs, and sometimes other orchestras. So I got this music inside me. The music going on at home was more based on classical radio, and my dad played piano but tended to play Beethoven, although he did have a soft spot for Fats Waller.

"But I didn't really get to hear any jazz until I was in my early teens, and then I started to hear Alexis Korner's blues programs, and there was a traditional jazz revival going on the in the UK at the end of the '50s that I picked up on. Soon after my voice broke, I bought a clarinet, with the idea of joining in with this kind of music. I didn't know how I was going to do it, but I bought a second hand clarinet and taught myself to play it. I ended up in the local jazz club on Friday nights, standing in the corner behind the band and just playing along. That's how I learned to play really, along with the radio and a few records I managed to get. At school there was not much in the way of facilities, but there was the piano and the national songbook, so I was singing a lot of folk songs. So, all that's inside of me.

"If I grew up in Chicago, with the blues, I would have a different sound, and it would be a different music. But all of us are influenced by the first music that we get inside, that moves us. Music is a very emotional attachment to people; it gets inside you, and you identify certain music with certain moods and certain times of your life. Considering the first twelve years of my life, since I wasn't exposed to jazz there's a lot of weird and wonderful stuff inside that finally ends up getting mixed in. But I think it's important to say that once I got to this point being interested in jazz I discovered that there was Peter Russell's hot record store in Plymouth. He was a mail order specialist, which you really needed in those days, to get records from the States and so forth. He just happened to be in Plymouth—he could've been anywhere really—and he took me under his wing. When he first met me, I was listening to British traditional jazz bands and I think he said, 'Listen, this is Louis Armstrong and Bix Beiderbecke,' and I'm gung ho."

John SurmanWith alto and tenor saxophones the more obvious horns of choice, how Surman came to the baritone is, perhaps, more obvious than might be expected. "There were two saxophones in the music store window, and one was an alto, the other a baritone," Surman explains. "Both were 37 pounds, 10 shillings, and I thought, 'Wow, value for money!' Plus, being fascinated by instruments, I thought, 'Ah, I have to know what that sounds like.' I had a paper round, and I borrowed money from my dad.

"His idea of disaster would be for me to have a career in music, and this is growing up after the war, and growing up in Plymouth with the idea that job security is important. So I went into the store and blew on this baritone, and when I got down to low C I think I had my first serious sexual experience; my whole body vibrated. Then I said to Peter, 'I've got this baritone.' He put on Harry Carney, and said, 'This is what it's supposed to sound like.' So I didn't have much time to wonder, and I've been trying to sound like that ever since [laughs]."

Surman did study music in college, but at the end of the day most of what he's done has been through self-study and collaborating with others. "It sounds a bit strange for someone who went to music college for three years," says Surman, "but in point of fact I have to be brutally honest and say I don't think that there's much I learned at music college that really showed me how to deal with the music that I write now. We did an awful lot of basic harmony. But there were no jazz studies in those days and it was like going from high school into another high school, like 'Yes sir, no sir,' and you couldn't study the sax because it wasn't an orchestral instrument, and on and on. Very basic; lots of rules, and writing counterpoint was kind of useful, maybe, but I don't think my head was there at all. I was eventually working my way into a few big bands, becoming a professional musician and playing blues with Alexis, who didn't gel too well with harmony."

Emerging in the '60s and '70s

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.

John Surman"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 Bruce—the 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 Africa—they'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 other—unbelievable—and 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."

John SurmanThe Trio would become well-known amongst the more experimental-minded, releasing two important records—the 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 Orchestra—though 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."

Coming to ECM

"We [Surman and Stu Martin] did [Barre Phillips'] Mountainscapes (ECM, 1976), and that's when the dialogue began. Then Jack [DeJohnette] called me and asked if I'd do a Mick Goodrick album [In Pas(s)ing]. I was in the studio with Manfred and he said, 'Let's do something,' so I proposed that I do the solo album, which I thought would be an interesting sound, and so did he."

John SurmanThat album, Upon Reflection (ECM, 1980), would be the start of a lifelong relationship with ECM as both a leader and guest, as well as the first in a series of completely solo albums, where Surman would layer saxophones, bass clarinet, keyboards and more to create, orchestral combinations of in-the-moment spontaneity and preplanned composition.

That first project also established a strong working relationship with Eicher. "The solo project for Manfred was interesting," Surman says, "because we got involved together very much from that. When you're alone in the studio recording then it really is useful to have someone in the control room that's got a really good ear. You do one track, and then you multi-track, and then you can ask Manfred how was that and he says, 'Great, great, go on to the next track,' so you can keep the immediacy, you can keep the vibe.

"We managed to get a way of working together straightaway, and I think he enjoyed that work, he was brilliant at it because I might do seven or eight takes, and he has this ability, this very good memory, for what's happened, so when we came to put it all together he said, 'What you want to listen to is this," and, 'Check that,' and so we had good cooperation there and that's why it worked out quite quickly."

Surman's next two projects—The Amazing Adventures of Simon Simon (1981) and Such Winters of Memory (1982) would feature two artists—Jack DeJohnette and Norwegian singer Karin Krog respectively—with whom Surman would come to collaborate often. As with DeJohnette, Surman's relationship with Krog has gone beyond the music. "We met in 1970," Surman explains. "The Down Beat readers poll in 1969 or '70 had Europeans like [Albert] Mangelsdorff, Jean-Luc Ponty, Karin, me, Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen, Daniel Humair, Francy Boland and the entrepreneur, Joachim Berendt.

"[Berendt] is known because of his great Coltrane quartet albums. So he took this band to Japan, I met Karin there and we did an album. I wrote a tune for it and subsequently, for several years, she wrote to me occasionally for bits of material. And then we eventually wound up doing a duo record in the '70s which took about four years because I funded it and ran out of money. It sat around and finally, in the early '80s, we also became an item; I was divorced and we've been together since the end of the '80s."

Sideman Sessions

Surman has released nearly 20 albums as a leader for ECM, stylistically ranging from near-free explorations like Adventure Playground (1992), a quartet with pianist Paul Bley, bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Tony Oxley. Still based around sketchy compositional form, that 1991 session yielded so much freely improvised material that a second album, this time billed as a collective, was released a year later as In the Evenings Out There It's not uncommon for ECM sessions to include some completely free improv—or, in the case of Brewster's Rooster's "Haywain," something built around such a spare idea that it's hard to think of it as possessing any structure at all. But Surman has participated as a guest on as many sessions as he has as a leader.

Surman was a member of Czech bassist Miroslav Vitous' late- '70s/early-'80s quartet with drummer Jon Christensen and, first, pianist Kenny Kirkland and then John Taylor. First Meeting (ECM, 1980) was, as the title suggest, precisely that," Surman explains. It was simply about coming to the studio and recording. I hadn't met Miroslav, but I saw him the day before in the hotel. I remember he brought me some free aftershave, which I thought was sort of unusual, I'll never forget that. I knew Jon Christenson, but Kenny Kirkland I didn't know, and so it was set up like track one, track two, track three, and so on. And of course it worked out very well. Subsequently we did do two or three European tours and I even played in Seventh Avenue South, the club that used to be the Breckers' club some years ago in New York."

John Surman

The group released three albums on ECM, but its second, Miroslav Vitous Group (1981) has yet to see release on CD. Still, Surman included his fiery "Number Six," from that album, on rarum XIII: Selected Recordings (ECM, 2004), an anthology of Surman's music picked by Surman. "I thought Miroslav's arco solo on 'Number Six' was just unbelievable, the tempo and the way he plays; and Kenny's solo too, leaving out the hollering and screaming. I think there was an element there where Miroslav was rather keen to play electric bass, and Manfred was a little bit less enthusiastic, so there was a bit more improvisation [on that album]. I think Miroslav was looking for something that had commercial appeal, which we all have to think about from time to time, and then finally Kenny joined Sting, and thence John Taylor came in, and in that way the band changed. It was different; they were equal, but they were different; John gave it a different feel [on Journey's End (1983)], which is as it should be. I think we did at least one more tour. We had a lot of fun with it; there were a lot of good times with that band on the road."

Another group that turned into more than a one-album affair was the quartet Surman played in with Paul Bley, also including drummer Paul Motian and a relatively young Bill Frisell on guitar. "A very singular gentleman, Paul [Bley]," John says. "Paul Motian happened to be knocking around, and Paul took care of Paul, as it were; I got on really well with Bill. Off the bandstand, there were no problems, I'd toddle along with Bill and we'd go our way and the Pauls would do what they had to do."

The group released its ECM debut, Fragments, in 1986, but was a classic example of a group where the degree of improvisational empathy was so deep that its second album, Paul Bley Quartet (1988), ended up being entirely improvised, with writing credits assigned to band members for royalty purposes only. "There was a lot going on at that time, and it was a very open music. The first album was full of composed pieces, and the second one was totally improvised. I use that when I do workshops with musicians, I say, 'Well, this is where you start, and this is where you finish. This is how it develops and moves on.'"

As free as the group was to explore, it was not without attention to some form of structure, tenuous though it might appear. "Yeah, there's structure, and I think it takes a special kind of listening musician to do that," Surman says, "a kind of intuition about where and when to wait. When to go for it, and when to support. Creating form together is quite interesting, there aren't that many that can do it. If the musicians are really capable of doing collective, interesting improvisation—I'm not talking about the totally free thing where, really, the point of it all is that whatever you do is okay—I think with that group there's a lot of interesting melodic stuff that Bill and I found. We got close enough together [onstage] that we could kind of create small but fragmented melodies. We could even tell what note we were going to play next; it was quite interesting. I've never forgotten that. We'd do it night after night and look at each other and go, 'How did we do that?'"

Those two projects have come and gone, but there are a couple of projects either ongoing or resurfacing. The Dowland Project, spearheaded by tenor John Potter (an original member of The Hilliard Ensemble, but no longer with that classical vocal group), has released three CDs to date, beginning with 1999's dark but sublimely beautiful In Darkness Let Me Dwell. Combining classical singing with baroque guitar, violin/viola and Surman's saxophones, clarinets and recorders, The Dowland Project takes an ostensibly classical repertoire and turns it on its side by taking it to a place where form and freedom coexist, and where contemporary and ancient instruments also occupy the same space.

John SurmanThe concept may seem revolutionary, but, in fact, it's just a continuation of an existing approach. "John Potter, the driving force, would say that when music was created in the Renaissance period, those singers and songwriter people like Dowland—and a lot of melodies—were improvised; made up on the spot. This [The Dowland Project] is really meant to do the same thing, only with contemporary sources. It's unusual to have a soprano sax playing Dowland; it raises quite a few eyebrows for the purists, but I've managed to get away with it so far [laughs]."

The other project is Middle Eastern oudist Anouar Brahem's trio with Surman and Dave Holland. Thimar (1998) was recorded 12 years ago, but the trio has performed since then, and it looks like there's another recording and tour in the making. "The thing with Anaour we did again. We were very successful; we did a tour a few months ago. There are plans laid to record and carry on with that, but it may be the end of next year. It may not happen very often, but we will do another album, that's for sure."

Projects with Tomasz Stanko (1999's From the Green Hill), pianist Misha Alperin (1999's First Impression) and John Abercrombie (1993's November) were less enduring. "The only reason I did Misha's was someone was sick," says Surman. "I think Tore Brunborg was sick or having a baby and I came in. So I went through that one in a state of being slightly stunned. I've known Stanko a long time, he was someone who was around when we were around with The Trio in the late-'60s/early '70s, and we did a project workshop with him and Johnny Griffin = 7239—maybe Karin was on it—so I got to work with him over the years and admired his playing. That [From the Green Hill] was fun to do. There were some very interesting musicians involved, and I wrote something for fiddle, that was really fun. Then with Abercrombie's November, we did a tour, and that's probably when I did most of my playing with him; that made me feel very comfortable with him, and all the odd occasions we played together it was comfortable. So there always have been links, through all of these things."

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 to saxophonist and fellow ECM label-mate Charles Lloyd, who made it the title track of his 2000 quintet album with the late drummer Billy Higgins—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."

Oslo and Keeping It Fresh

After living in Oslo for five years, Surman is still acclimatizing to a country with terrific social services, but also the taxes required to support them. "They're roasting me with taxes," Surman say, "it's unbelievable here. I'm struggling to keep my head above water especially coming in late in the game as it were. They're scalping me at the moment [laughs].

"Practically, I'm more involved in the social round, the coping with living here in a different country. Musically, I'm still way on the outside; I do a few gigs here. I know some of the musicians and have a done a tour with [pianist] Dag Arnesen, but mostly I'm working everywhere else—Italy, France, Germany—with the occasional thing here. I played here with Jack [DeJohnette] in the summer, I've got some collaborations with the Bergen Big Band; they're a very good big band. To be honest, it seems there is plenty going on here. I touch on it occasionally, but most of the things I've done here have been tooting along with Karin and going in with her stuff. I very rarely do my own music here; I never actually have done any of the stuff like Proverbs and Songs or the string stuff up here. So I'm kind of a guest here, really. [Laughter] For retirement, I know I'll be well set up."

John Surman

With his US dates on the horizon, Surman is looking forward to taking the music of Brewster's Rooster and seeing where he, Abercromie, Gress and DeJohnette can take it. On the subject of how he keeps things fresh and avoids repetition in his music, Surman is candid. "Intuition is one word you could use; desperation is another," he says. "What you hear is what you get. I did learn one thing from Elvin Jones, when we were rehearsing 15 or 20 years ago. It was an octet, a Dag Arnesen project, and there was a tricky little bit for the horn, and Dag said, 'Well, let's try half tempo.'

"So we played it half tempo, and at that point most drummers I know get up and walk over and have a glass of water, but Elvin just sat there with the same intensity while playing it half tempo, and it sounded fuckin' great. In other words, play the music all the time or don't play at all.

"I need to be full on with it. I can only be okay that way—you just have to play, and that's how it is for me, and what keeps me going. What keeps me fresh is the way that people play. I listen to what others do and pick up on that and they'll take from me sometimes. The only difference is when I'm playing solo concerts. But then it's the audience, and if it's the audience you need to get them to throw you an idea or tell them to drop something like, 'Come on, I want for it to rain, make rain noises for me.' Then a vibe sets up, you get some feedback, and that's how it works."

Selected Discography

John Surman, Brewster's Rooster (ECM, 2009)

John Surman/Howard Moody, Rain On The Window (ECM, 2008)

The Dowland Project, Romaria ECM, 2008)

John Surman, The Spaces in Between (ECM, 2007)

John Surman, Glancing Backwards: The Dawn Anthology (Santuary, 2006)

John Surman, Way Back When (Cuneiform, 2005)

John Surman, Free and Equal ECM, 2003)

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

John Surman, Coruscating (ECM, 2000)

Tomasz Stanko, From the Green Hill (ECM, 1999)

John Dowland, In Darkness Let Me Dwell (ECM, 1999)

Anouar Brahem, Thimar (ECM, 1998)

John Surman, Proverbs and Songs (ECM, 1997)

John Surman Quartet, Stranger Than Fiction (ECM, 1994)

John Surman/Peter Warren, The Brass Project (ECM, 1993)

John Abercrombie/Marc Johnson/Peter Erskine/John Surman, November (ECM, 1993)

John Surman, Adventure Playground (ECM, 1993)

John Surman, Private City (ECM, 1988)

Paul Bley, Fragments (ECM, 1986)

John Surman, Such Winters of Memory (ECM, 1983)

John Surman, The Amazing Adventures of Simon Simon (ECM, 1981)

Miroslav Vitous, First Meeting (ECM, 1980)

John Surman, Upon Reflection (ECM, 1979)

Mick Goodrick, In Pas(s)ing (ECM, 1979)

Barre Phillips, Mountainscapes (ECM, 1976)

John Surman, How Many Clouds Can You See? (Decca, 1969)

John McLaughlin, Extrapolation (Polydor, 1969)

Photo Credits

Page 1, Page 2 (top), Page 6: Robert Lewis, courtesy of ECM Records

Page 2 (bottom): Rogan Coles

Page 4: Esther Cidoncha



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