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John Surman: Listen and Trust

Thomas Conrad By

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John Surman is arguably the best baritone saxophonist to come into jazz since Gerry Mulligan and one of the most important British jazz musicians of his generation. Yet he has rarely performed in the United States and never as a leader. Therefore it is no exaggeration to describe his upcoming gig at Birdland as a genuine event.

The most significant recent development in the jazz art form is globalization. There are now more major jazz innovators emerging outside the United States than ever before. Yet because of the cost and difficulty of obtaining American work permits, many world-class figures from other countries play here infrequently. On the phone from Oslo, Norway, where he now makes his home, Surman says, "There is a certain amount of resentment. American musicians can just show up in Europe. But European musicians have to jump through hoops to play in America." It is not coincidental that, when Surman finally arrives for his very first club gig in New York, he will be playing with three Americans who don't need paperwork.

Surman grew up in Plymouth, in the county of Devon in southwest England. As a boy he had an exceptional soprano voice and sang oratorios in school and church choirs. He says, "Then my voice changed and that was the end of that. I think what happened was that I missed music-making, so I found a second-hand clarinet in a pawn shop." He describes himself as "self-taught, particularly in jazz. I picked up everything by ear, starting about the age of 14." Before long he started sitting in at the local club where trad jazz was played on Friday nights.

He acquired an old reconditioned French baritone saxophone when he was 16 or 17. Plymouth, though it was "miles from anywhere," had a jazz record store operated by Peter Russell. Surman says, "When Peter found out I had a baritone, he said, 'You've got to hear this guy' and of course it was Harry Carney. Peter pointed me in a lot of vital directions. I learned jazz history in Peter's record store. I'd sneak out of school early and spend most of my time there, listening on headphones to Armstrong and Ellington and Mingus."

His father insisted that he acquire a profession. Surman "scraped into the London College Of Music, where you couldn't study saxophone because it was not considered a serious orchestral instrument." He studied clarinet with Wilfred Kealey and took a teaching diploma. He remains grateful to Kealey for his emphasis on "tone quality and getting a really good sound."

After graduation Surman was absorbed directly into the London jazz scene, which was energetic and eclectic in the mid '60s. He played with Dave Holland, John McLaughlin, Mike Westbrook, Mike Gibbs and Chris McGregor, who brought the music of the South African townships to London. Surman also learned a lot from Alexis Korner, "an evangelist for the blues," by listening to 78s and LPs with him and "playing blues for hours, night after night" with Korner's band Blues Incorporated. But during this period, Surman says, "My ears were firmly focused on Mingus, Shepp, Ornette, Rollins and Trane."

Surman's work as far back as 1969 can be heard on John McLaughlin's seminal Extrapolation. But the best sources for mid-period Surman are ECM recordings of the '70s like Mick Goodrick's In Pas(s)ing and Barre Phillips' Mountainscapes, where his playing reveals a consistent willingness to go for broke. This Surman identity—the fearless saxophone aggressor, overwrought with fresh ideas, yet more selective and more melodic than most players as free and edgy as himself—is one he has sustained throughout his career. It is the Surman who played in a collective called The Trio with bassist Barre Phillips and drummer Stu Martin from 1969-77 and performed in duo with drummer Jack DeJohnette for 35 years and who still leads an important exploratory quartet with pianist John Taylor, bassist Chris Laurence and drummer John Marshall.

But Surman the rarefied blower is only one of his identities. The single most striking aspect of his career is the enormous diversity of his musical interests. In the last 20 years he has blossomed as a composer, arranger, conceptualist and alchemical blender of genres. He has also become fully expressive on many reed instruments, synthesizers and wind electronics. The contexts in which he has placed his own horns have included: solo saxophone projects; suites for Jack DeJohnette and ten-piece classical brass ensemble; string quintets; extended works for pipe organ and 80-voice chorus; music for film, TV and radio plays; suites for symphony orchestra; joint ventures with modern dance companies and John Potter's Dowland Project, combining improvisation and early Baroque music.

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