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.

Surman says, "For the first 15 years or so of my career, all I really wanted to do was play—blow. But there were other kinds of music in me that were trying to get out. I grew up in a home that listened to the BBC's Third Programme, which was classical music. It got inside my bones. There were feelings evoked by the sound of that music—the sound of a string group, the sound of a brass ensemble, orchestral sounds... But if I wanted to get those sounds into my jazz work, I had to write the stuff myself. It didn't exist in another form."

A confluence of great importance, in terms of Surman's need to "get other kinds of music...out," has been his partnership with the ECM label and its legendary producer, Manfred Eicher. Surman says, "Manfred is a real producer. He likes to get his hands dirty. If I'm doing a solo project, overlaying stuff, Manfred is brilliant at logging it. He'll say, 'Listen, check this out, why not start with this?' He is fascinated by newness. He likes to be involved in the adventure. You might have a quartet session where a piece is going along and then starts to tail off and you think the thing is over but Manfred picks up on something, some mood and you see him waving through the window, 'Keep it going, keep it going! Just hang in there, lads!'"

Because Eicher, like Surman, thinks outside of genre, they have together built a unique body of work, 34 titles and counting, which is extraordinary in its creative strength and breadth. If this writer were forced to choose one of Surman's ECM albums to take to a desert island, it would be Coruscating, from 1999. It contains his writing for his own saxophones and clarinets (including contrabass), bassist Chris Laurence and a string quartet and is a deep meditation, a complex of rapt moods evolving in whispers. Surman says that this ensemble is one of his favorites. It has an extensive repertoire, performs regularly in Europe and now has a second album out, The Spaces In Between, from 2006.

Ordinarily, you expect jazz musicians to make jazz albums. But coming from John Surman, who has long been identified with the esoteric, his new disc Brewster's Rooster is surprising precisely because it is a jazz date. For the session, Surman got together with two of his oldest friends, DeJohnette and guitarist John Abercrombie, new friend and bassist Drew Gress, wrote several new tunes and recorded some ballads and some burners. Still, Brewster's Rooster is anything but straight-ahead. It is music open to wide space and possibility. DeJohnette and Gress conjure atmospheres of energy in which Abercrombie and Surman swoop and swerve and slide sideways.

But whatever the musical environment—whether he is functioning as one third of Anouar Brahem's stark, exotic, interactive trio, accompanying himself on synthesizer with infectious grooves or melding with an 80-voice chorus—two qualities of Surman's playing have continuity. The first is, on all his reed instruments, at all levels of intensity, his clear, pure tone. Surman credits Wilfred Kealey and also the fact that he started in music as a singer. "My playing," he says, "is a form of singing."

The other quality is that he does not employ cliches or licks. His lines veer in surprising directions. Surman attributes this quality of unpredictability to the fact that he is always closely listening: "I think it's about listening for opportunities, having the sensibility to hear possibilities to move with, in what other people play. Just listen and trust."

Recommended Listening:

John McLaughlin, Extrapolation (Marmalade-Polydor, 1969)

The Trio, Eponymous (Dawn-BGO, 1970)

Alan Skidmore/Mike Osborne/John Surman, S.O.S. (Ogun, 1974)

John Surman, Adventure Playground (ECM, 1991)

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

John Surman, Brewster's Rooster (ECM, 2007)

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