John Surman: From Boy Choirs to Big Horns

John Kelman By

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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."
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