John Surman: From Boy Choirs to Big Horns

John Kelman By

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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."
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