Most listeners know John Surman for his spacious baritone and soprano saxophone work on around thirty ECM releases, dating back to his appearance on Barre Phillips' Mountainscapes (1976) and his own label debut, Upon Reflection (1979). Surman's saxophone playing tends to be open, articulate, and lyrical, and he's usually at his strongest in acoustic settings. Check out John Abercrombie's quartet record November (1993) for an excellent sample.
The recently discovered Way Back When dates back to 1969, right before Surman joined up with Barre Phillips and Stu Martin to form the Trio (which would garner him important early attention). Surman describes the studio event as a "farewell jam session" with friends, and that's what it sounds like. There's some hiss and a little distortion on the recording (the "rough" mix survives), but it's plenty good enough to provide a snapshot in time back to the dawn of fusion.
The four-part "Way Back When" series unrolls as fairly standard early fusion fare, not unlike what the rolling jams that Miles Davis was doing at the time. Bass and drums hang together as a riff-driven engine for open-ended improvisation up top by Surman and John Taylor, here featured on electric piano. (Taylor's another one whose best work has been unplugged, but he does a good job backing up Surman and laying down unpredictable rhythmic accents at various points.) Surman takes a little while to warm up from short, angular phrases into a near-linear flow that's marked by swivels, thrusts, and embedded cyclical patterns.
Alto saxophonist Mike Osborne came late to the jam, but he contributes some potent playing to the last two tracks, and his more overtly soulful approach stands somewhat in contrast to Surman's own higher degrees of abstraction.
This might not be the best place to start if you're new to John Surman, but it's quite illuminating about his roots and entertaining in general.
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