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S.O.S.: S.O.S.: Looking for the Next One

John Kelman By

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With more and more archival "finds" hitting the shelves—real or virtual—it's becoming increasingly difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff. Just because an old, long considered lost recording has resurfaced doesn't inherently make it worthy of release: sometimes the sound isn't up to snuff—though, if it's a stellar performance, that can sometimes be forgiven—but other times, the performance itself is simply not that good. Sometimes a performance becomes lost for a reason.

Not so with Looking for the Next One, a stunning two-disc set of unearthed jewels by the short-lived S.O.S.—saxophonists John Surman, Mike Osborne and Alan Skidmore—previously documented only on a single, self-titled 1975 Ogun recording. When the label releasing such found material is Cuneiform Records—whose Flashpoint: NDR Jazz Workshop—April '69 (2011) was a similarly monumental find of an even earlier Surman performance—it's a fair bet that not only is the music going to be beyond top-notch, but the sound quality, too. It doesn't hurt, in this case, that ex-Reel Recordings label head Mike King was involved in the mastering— his own, sadly now- defunct label having rescued some prime archival material of its own, include Soft Machine's superb Live at Henie Onstad Arts Centre 1971 (2009).

The idea of a horn ensemble is nothing new, but the fact that, by the time SOS was formed, Surman had already begun experimenting with keyboards, sequencers and overdubbing on recordings like Westering Home (Island, 1972)—and that Skidmore was also a drummer of no small worth—meant that the coming together of these three ultimate legends of the '60s British jazz scene and beyond was destined to be something more than just three horns wailing in unfettered freedom. The trio already had plenty of history together in other contexts, like Surman's How Many Clouds Can You See? (Deram, 1970), and had even played together as an a cappella horn trio—a single track documented on Jazz in Britain '68-69 (Decca, 1972)—so its genesis was already somewhat in play when, with Skidmore in the hospital for months in 1972 following a serious automobile accident, Surman, during one of his regular visits, proposed the formation of SOS for when Skidmore was released from hospital.

By the time this happened in April 1973, all three players had already demonstrated significant musical breadth; neither fish nor fowl, they were as comfortable in the context of free improv as they were performing more scored material, and the music on Looking for the Next One demonstrates, if not every facet, than certainly many of their collective multifaceted abilities. As Surman revealed in a All About Jazz interview, his own background in boy choirs and traditional British folk music was as seminal to his development as his interest in Harry Carney, Bix Beiderbecke and Louis Armstrong—something clearly demonstrated on "Country Dance," from a September, 1975 London session where Surman soars with John Coltrane-esque freedom over a repeated, two-chord folkloric pattern layered by Skidmore and Osborne, only to dissolve into a three-way free-for-all...or, at least, it would seem so, except that when the horns seem to magically coalesce, the line between form and freedom becomes well and thoroughly blurred.

Unlike the compositionally co-credited "Country Dance," "Q.E. Hall" is solely Surman's, opening with a serpentine synthesizer sequence, with drummer Tony Levin (who guests on two tracks) attacking his drum kit with Rashied Ali-like abandon (no surprise, then, that S.O.S. also plays "Rashied," written by the ex-Coltrane drummer, albeit as a drummer-less horn trio, one of three late '74 recordings that open the first disc). Osborne contributes an exhilaratingly incendiary alto solo, with Surman gradually introducing a chordal backdrop on electric piano that slowly assumes dominance and, ultimately, leads to a solo of his own that confirms Surman as a far better keyboardist than he lets on—as does his grand piano work on Skidmore's curiously constructed "Looking for the Next One," where alto and tenor saxophones layer a surprisingly lyrical theme over Surman's pedal tone-driven, modal extrapolations. A descent into total abandon gradually leads to a repetitive four-bar piano pattern, with Levin settling into a 4/4 pulse—still delivered with rapturous expressionism—as Skidmore solos with unrelenting fire, leading to a more atmospheric closing, Surman's tremelo'd piano panned back and forth across the stereo landscape.

There are shorter pieces, too; in addition to a near-psychedelic, Tangerine Dream-like synth sequence, Surman applies effects like delay and wah wah to his soprano, creating a pulsating, searing fanfare on his solo opener, "News," setting the tone for the entire two-disc, two-hour collection, while the contrapuntal, three horn-only closer to disc two, Surman's pastoral "Legends," reflects his interest and acumen in classical music.

With the first disc devoted to recordings in London from late '74 and the fall of '75, disc two is culled completely from a July, 1974 performance in Balver, Germany that's more characteristic of S.O.S. live; with the exception of the brief encore, "Legends," the set consists of three lengthy tracks, ranging from 15 to 25 minutes, that are actually collections of numerous connected compositions and free explorations. "Suite" opens the performance with a low-end pedal tone and synth sequence, the horns' folkloric fanfare a lush and consonant blend of Surman's bass clarinet with Osborne's alto and Skidmore's tenor segueing into a middle section that, with Surman's move to electric piano, Skidmore's delicate but frenetic kit work and a powerhouse solo from Osborne (demonstrating, amongst many things, remarkable altissimo control), draws a clear line between S.O.S. and Soft Machine circa Fifth (Sony, 1972), in particular the side with Australian drummer Phil Howard that represented the constantly shifting group at its freest.

It's a clear sign of a time when, while there may have been musical cliques, there was also a thrilling cross-pollination amongst them, Surman's Way Back When (2005) yet another terrific Cuneiform find, this time from 1969, that—featuring pianist John Taylor, drummer John Marshall, bassist Brian Ogdren and, on two tracks, Osborne—was yet another example of a time when anything seemed truly possible.

Those halcyon days may have largely become a thing of the past by the end of the 1970s, but in the new millennium—where musical boundaries seem once again to be challenged on a regular basis, making it a new golden age for jazz and improvised music—not only does a record like Looking for the Next One seem, once again, to be relevant, its importance in the ongoing development of Surman, Osborne and Skidmore becomes crystal clear.

The three members of S.O.S. would go their own separate ways by the end of 1976, with Surman emerging as the most enduring of the three, his three-decade relationship with ECM Records—last documented on Brewster's Roosters (2009) and the venerable German label's own archival dig, Night Sessions (2013), by tenor John Potter's fourteen year-old Dowland Project—plus occasional sidebars like The Rainbow Band Sessions (Losen, 2011) all demonstrating a reach that has broadened even further. But with labels like Cuneiform unearthing important archival material like Looking for the Next One, not only are significant blanks now being filled but, even more importantly, the music is finally seeing the light of day on an internationally distributed label that finally places S.O.S. in the spotlight it deserves, with an album that will surely rank as one of the year's best archival finds.

Track Listing: CD1: News; Rashied; Looking for the Next One; Country Dance; Q.E. Hall; The Mountain Road. CD2: Introduction; Suite; Trio Trio; Up There; Legends.

Personnel: Mike Osborne: alto saxophone, percussion; Alan Skidmore: soprano and tenor saxophones, drums; John Surman: baritone and soprano saxophones, bass clarinet, synthesizer, keyboards; Tony Levin: drums (CD1#5-6).

Title: S.O.S.: Looking for the Next One | Year Released: 2013 | Record Label: Cuneiform Records


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