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John Surman: From Boy Choirs to Big Horns

John Kelman By

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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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