Musician & Composer



The Stateside buzz about John Surman’s Brewster’s Rooster (ECM) and his late August fortnight of club stands at Blues Alley in DC and Birdland in NYC was not unexpected. After all, the veteran British saxophonist and composer had assembled an all-star American band worth their weight in sterling – guitarist John Abercrombie, drummer Jack DeJohnette and bassist Drew Gress – who reinforced the beaming energy and lyricism of his writing on a second-by-second basis. That alone is worth a bunch of instant reviews and mentions in weekly gig picks columns. The somewhat surprising and definitely encouraging aspect of this wavelet was the number of journalists who actually wanted to interview Surman, and write substantial pieces about his 40 years in the vanguard of European jazz. This seemed to catch Surman off guard as much as DC’s stultifying heat and humidity; with his schedule approaching overload, 20 minutes an hour before his last night at Blues Alley was all he could muster.

20 minutes can be an eternity if someone has nothing to say or defaults to stock non-answers. But, 20 minutes with Surman means whole chapters of the saga are not touched upon. Take your pick: Surman’s work on such late-‘60s Mike Westbrook classics as the gripping anti-war protest Marching Song (Deram), which ignited Surman’s ascent; or his first dates as a leader. Maybe you squeeze in a passing reference to bassist Barre Phillips and drummer Stu Martin, with whom Surman stormed through the early ‘70s as The Trio. Then, there’s a host of subsequent projects that could be cut out of the discussion: his work with synthesizers (which includes nearly 30 years of duets with DeJohnette), brass ensembles and Trans4mation string quartet – or, for that matter, conventionally configured quartets, be they one-offs with luminaries like Paul Bley and Gary Peacock, or reunions with early-days cohorts like John Taylor, Chris Laurence and John Marshall.

The only option is to tug on a thread. Unless an artist totally confounds expectations each time out, a steady stream of recordings over a 40-year period will have discernable threads running through them. The strands running through Surman’s music are not tied to the usual-suspect saxophone colossuses. Though he was inspired by Harry Carney as a lad, Surman has all but studiously avoided the Ellingtonian baritone giant, the sanguine take on “Chelsea Bridge” from Brewster’s Rooster notwithstanding. Likewise, his soprano is not a stock casting of John Coltrane’s. The overarching reason Surman’s playing is outside these long shadows is that it is composition-specific. The most distinctive threads in Surman’s playing are entwined in his compositions. The one I thought would be best suited for a 20-minute interview, and which could bring perspective to a rather sprawling discography, was the influence of British folk music on Surman’s.

If the maturation of European jazz is predicated on an ongoing articulation of its folk music, Surman is in the thick of the narrative. Since his earliest albums, there has a been a folk music tinge to much of Surman’s music, even in such unlikely forums like a scorching duo with drummer Alan Jackson on How Many Clouds Can You See? (Deram; ’70). Rather than appropriate or approximate folk music, Surman instead integrates the lilt and lift of folk music into dominantly jazz-hued themes, as is the case with the title piece of Way Back When (Cuneiform; ‘69). When he opts for more overt usage – such as the sailor’s dance on Westering Home (FMR; ’72), Surman’s breakthrough multi-track solo album – the material is offset by arch, unfolksy elements like synthesizers and string quartets. One of Surman’s more pivotal collaborators was choreographer Carolyn Carlson at the Paris Opera through the mid and late ‘70s inasmuch as it forced Surman to circumvent Lp-imposed limitations on duration and jazz record conventions, such as having barnstormers open and close an album. Creating music for dance prompted Surman to emphasize color and texture to create cycloramic washes of sound, an approach well-documented on a decades-long series of solo albums for ECM, beginning with Upon Reflection (’79).

Surman’s solo albums exemplify the coming of age of European jazz. Granted, they are just one facet of Surman’s music, and it has been 15 years since the last of them was recorded. Still, it is a unique body of work, one that streams folk music and its appropriation by past and present British composers. On the one hand, the music is fundamentally atmospheric, base-coated with evocative synths. On the other, albums like The Road to St. Ives (’90)and A Biography of the Rev. Absalom Dawe (’94) have a narrative component grounded in idyllic England and Surman’s genealogy; St. Ives was the home of the venerated potter Bernard Leach, and the Rev. Absalom Dawe – a name befitting a Thomas Hardy novel – was the cousin of Surman’s great, great grandmother. Subsequently, Surman’s solo albums have a cinematic tinge.

This latter quality also permeates Surman’s writing for brass ensembles and Trans4mation string quartet, the latter assembled by Laurence from among his colleagues in the Academy of St. Martins in the Fields chamber orchestra. Surman’s scores for strings have real tensions in development and tone that are not always resolved, but they don’t plunge into the brooding common among his Nordic contemporaries; in this regard, the title of his second album with Trans4mation, 2006’s The Spaces In Between, is especially apropos. Conversely, Surman’s brass ensembles for Free and Equal, the nine-part work recorded in 2001 with London Brass and DeJohnette on both piano and drums, are frequently robust, even radiant; a tribute to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on the 40th anniversary of its adaption by the United Nations, the tone occasionally turns solemn. But, Surman’s solos and DeJohnette’s drumming invariably jolt the music ahead; the same can be said of the Trans4mation albums, even if they leave one wanting an even larger role for Laurence, one of the truly underheralded bassists of his generation.

Surman’s skills as an orchestrator and his jazz-fueled gifts as an improviser tend to sublimate the folk thread of his aesthetic. Yet, it can still be discerned even on an energetic blowing vehicle like “Hilltop Dancer” from Brewster’s Rooster, which Surman called to kick off the last night of the Blues Alley stand: mix out DeJohnette’s powerhouse drumming and you have a folk-jazz reel that would fit snuggly into a Jim Hall-era Jimmy Giuffre 3 date. It’s the old saw: You can take the boy out of the country …In this regard, Surman’s early years are germane; he sung folk music from The National Song Book as a boy chorister. “I learned all those songs and carols and rounds,” he said very early in our meeting. “That was my musical life then. This was soon enough after the war that all we had at school was an old piano and a few copies of The National Song Book.”

It was only after his voice broke that he took up the clarinet, subsequently discovering skiffle, blues and jazz as a teenager, the latter largely through the luck of finding an enthusiast record shop owner in Plymouth. Surman opined that his development is atypical because he emerged on the London scene at what he considers a paradoxical moment in UK jazz history, “when the avant-garde was the most popular form of the music, a very rare thing to happen in any art form.” Though he quickly became one of the brightest new stars of British jazz, Surman nevertheless struggled to find his own voice. “I eventually began to notice that some of the strange things I was playing that weren’t sounding like Sonny Rollins and weren’t sounding like Coltrane was actually me,” Surman recounted. “These melodies kept coming out at the jam sessions, but I never made a conscious decision to go in that direction. I was playing jazz.”

His solo albums were pivotal; synthesizers enabled Surman to hear these melodies outside a jazz context. “That’s when I stopped fighting against it. I didn’t think that was hip in the ‘60s. Again, it wasn’t a conscious decision, but I think I discovered the soul of folk music in the rhythms and the bewitching melodies. But, I don’t think I’m unique in that. You look at jazz in 1900 and it’s already a world music – the Creoles, the marching bands, the Spanish influence. What I’ve been doing is just a continuation of that. Even when you talk about British folk music, it is difficult to isolate what is purely English, given how the Scottish and the Irish music have been mixed in. I grew up near Cornwall, where the Celtic influence is very strong. You can find a lot of the same melodic things happening in Scandinavian folk music, though their music is more minor and modal, which immediately made it ideal for jazz improvisation. But, I have to tell you straight up, I’m not an expert in all of this. I’m just working with it from the inside.

“The synthesizer allowed me to think in terms of landscape textures,” Surman continued, “which emerged from the work I did for dance in Paris, where I had a free hand and a lot of time. I discovered that I was putting these lilting melodies on top. They were sneaking in, in a way, just like when I write what I initially think will be a straight up jazz piece. I tend to hear it only after it’s finished. I’ll listen to something I’ve written for The Spaces in Between and think, ‘that’s a bit Vaughn Williams.’ It’s really more about what emerges from it than I what put into it.” 

Citing his early London days of playing blues with Alexis Korner, township music with Chris McGregor and even calypso, Surman makes the point that every tradition he has encountered could be poured into his music, but has not. “I think that each of these types of music has its own joy to them, and you can take that joy to other situations without literally playing in those styles,” he explained. “I’m sure that when I play with folk musicians in Brittany, which I love to do because it really is a living music, they hear what I do as being somewhat outside what they play, even though I’m trying to play their music. So, it really is about who you are.”


I found this great quote of yours where you said the baritone saxophone has “all the agility of a double-decker bus in a fallow field.” So, based on this, how did you come to choose to play the bari as a youngster?

It’s actually quite interesting. When I was 16 or 17 I saw two saxophones in a music store, an alto and a baritone. They were both the same price, and I thought, “Wow, all that much more saxophone!” (Laughing) But I really liked the look of the instrument. It was a very old French instrument that had been reconditioned. So I gave it a try. I sort of worked my way down to low C and my whole body vibrated. It was pretty much my first sexual experience (laughing). At the time I had been playing clarinet, doing a lot of traditional-jazz/Dixieland-jazz jobs. I used to go down to the local jazz club and stand by the side of the stage and jam along and after several weeks or months they said I could play, so I did. I had a friend (Peter Russell) who had a jazz record store, which was a very rare thing where I grew up in Plymouth in the southwest part of England. He said, “Hey, you have a baritone saxophone,” and put on some Harry Carney. That was a good starter pack with regards to what you were supposed to do with a baritone. Well I didn’t take the instrument straight back to the shop, which is something I suppose I should have done (laughing), but I did think it was a great instrument. You know my beginnings in music were as a choirboy. I had a quite a good soprano voice as a choirboy and did lots of solos, and things like that around the Plymouth area. I performed oratorios and so on. Then my voice broke and I kind of missed music, without really knowing what was going on, as it were. So I bought a second-hand clarinet and heard some jazz. I thought it was really interesting and that I could join in with it, so I did.

So primarily you’re a self-taught performer.


I know you spent some time at the London College of Music. What was the experience like for you there?

Well the deal was, with my parents, that if I wanted to be a musician I would have to at least get a teaching diploma, some sort of qualification. So I took some clarinet lessons from one of the Royal Marine Bandsmen clarinetists and managed to scrape by on my entrance exam into the London College of Music. I was lucky there because one of the things that was really positive was that in those days you weren’t allowed to study the saxophone. It wasn’t considered a legitimate orchestral instrument. That sounds pretty weird now, and sometimes I say that to students at workshops and they just look at me bewildered because they’re already in the Royal Academy (of Music) and doing a jazz course of study. But anyway, that’s how it was then, so I had to study clarinet, which was not really my favorite instrument. But I was lucky to have Wilfred Kealey as a teacher. He was a former principal clarinetist with the BBC Orchestra and a really nice guy whose main interest was in tone quality and getting a really good sound. That was something that really helped me a lot because I was also interested in that too. He was able to reinforce a lot of things about breathing and the basics. I studied with him for three years and then in the fourth year I went to the London University Institute of Education to take a teaching diploma. At that point I was able to go back to Kealey and take lessons with him, but I told him, “I have to tell you a secret that all the time you’ve been teaching me the clarinet I’ve been going out at night and playing the saxophone which might account for the fact that I’m not an orchestral soloist on the clarinet.” His reply was, “Well, I thought it was something!.” (Laughing) So I said, “I’ve got this bass clarinet, can I bring that in?” Well, that was that and I had a good year with him on the bass clarinet.

The British music scene was very big and vibrant when you were young and coming up. This time also included your work with John McLaughlin. That was also the same time when here in America we were experiencing the so-called British pop/rock band invasion. There was a healthy rock scene in England and a lot of your early recordings and early work were in this rock and fusion area. I was wondering if you could talk a little about this time period?

It was one of those interesting times when several different people, all strong musicians, all emerged at the same time. We’re talking about Dave Holland, John McLaughlin, Mike Gibbs, as well as someone who was a big influence at the time, having just arrived from South Africa, Chris McGregor. He brought some great musicians to England with him, like Dudu Pukwanahe, Louis Moholo and Johnny Dyani. There was also load of other guys around, like John Taylor, John Marshall and composers like Mike Westbrook. They were all around at the same point in time, and I think that was a key factor. There was also an active free movement with people like Evan Parker and John Stevens. You touched on the fact that the whole music scene was big. It’s a cliché that the 60s were “the swinging 60s,” but if there are a lot of people out there doing things, it really helps to create a vibrant scene. This was the time when the thing to do in London was to get out and go to things, not just music but also rallies such as those for the nuclear disarmament program. There were also a lot of jazz and poetry clubs all creating an immense amount of activity. You know if you’ve got a lot of activity it breeds a lot of people who take care of it. It was an interesting time. (…More)

I was wondering if you could tell the readers about some of the early rock work you did with a very young John McLaughlin?

The funny thing is that when you’re in the middle of the action it seems like there are lots of people doing lots of one really big thing, but they’re not, they’re really doing lots of different things. John was special in that he was never really one of the guys who was playing in the clubs all the time. I actually met him in the studio when we were making a record with Georgie Fame, the pop artist. John was jamming in between takes and I thought, “Wow, this guy really sounds great.” I supposed John had heard me play and then invited me to come play on his first album. But the album was a shock-horror thing to me. It was full of monsterly-difficult time signature things. I can’t remember exactly what they were now, but there was some 11/8 and 13/8. I was still in the stage where a waltz was good enough for me in the sense that it was as tough of a time-signature as I got (laughing). John’s album was a ball-breaking experience and all of us on it were hanging on with grim-death for the material. He was a very ahead-of-it performer. Extrapolation was actually a very special recording session.

As someone who really mastered the rock and jazz-rock thing early in your career, if you had suggestions for young musicians who wanted to go into these areas, what would they be?

I don’t really have a special aid or suggestion to help people for this particular area because I think the preparation for getting into any kind of music is essentially the same, in the sense that you must listen to as much as you can and develop your listening abilities as much as you can. Once you’ve got that listening thing going you can go in almost any direction because you’re listening to what else is going on and that steers you into it. I think it’s listening to the music that interests you when you’re an up-and-coming player. Really the best way into it is to have as wide a listening program as possible. Nowadays if you want to get into jazz-rock you better get yourself a good microphone, especially as a saxophone player (laughing). But of course that’s a technical thing that’s addressed by most teachers. There’s a heck of a lot of information about those kinds of things available out there these days, where as there was less in the 60s. We didn’t have the kind of knowledge or back-up information youngsters have today.

Was there a mentor, during that time period that helped you and “showed you the ropes,” as it were?

No one person, it was really just all of the stuff that was going on around me. In the 60s and up until 1967 Coltrane was a huge figure, (Sonny) Rollins as well. The huge jazz figures are who we were listening to and saying, “This is incredible.” I don’t think it was until the 1970s when Weather Report and bands like that started to influence us. Soft Machine with John Marshall (an influential British psychedelic group) was happening at that time as well. I’ve never been particular about the genre of music I play in. If it’s good stuff I like to be in on it. I just like to play, so I’ve never really followed a particular line of action as it were. I’ve just gone where my fancy took me or where circumstances led. People would come along and say, “Come play with me,” and I would, no matter the style.

This leads me to the thought of how, since that time, you’ve oriented yourself to explore a wide range of other musical venues. I was wondering if this was a natural progression in your development or did you make a conscious choice to leave the rock and jazz-rock area where you were so successful to explore other areas?

I think what happened was that I found myself moving away from, in the traditionally widest sense of the term, the jazz music track and partly, when I started to work with dance in Paris with Barre Phillips and the dancer Carolyn Carlson. That really opened up some doors with synthesizers I hadn’t really explored before. I realized then that I had grown up with music that wasn’t really jazz music. I hadn’t become aware of jazz until I was 15, so there was a lot of music inside me that didn’t actually come from Chicago or New Orleans. There was this other music in me that was trying to come out. I had some melodic ideas inside that were trying to be expressed. I needed to find a way to play in other ways. Without making a conscious decision I just gradually realized that this must be what’s happening, namely that there is other music that wants to come out, so I just laid back and let it happen rather than made a conscious effort to go anywhere else, but the association with ECM records made this decision more straight-forward in the sense that the way in which I was heading was in line with Manfred Eicher and that company. He was enjoying the music I was proposing on my solo recordings.

Let me touch on the electronics thing you brought up. To my ear you’ve really mastered the use of electronics in a totally musical manner. They, like any instrument, take a lot of time and energy to master. I was wondering if there were any parallels you found between learning the saxophone and learning the electronics?

I will keep dragging the conversation back to the point about it being in the ear and what you hear and what you’re listening for. If it works it’s because I’m hearing in my head the blend between the electronics and whatever else I’m playing. I think it’s that that makes it work. Unless you’re looking for something in music that is full of contrast, a situation were one element is really fighting another element, I’m using my ear to find the sounds of the electronics I think compliment and integrate or set the saxophones in good relief and don’t eat up the saxophone’s quality. It’s a tone color thing that’s really like orchestrating. If you want to have a delicate flute melody don’t write a load of brass at fortissimo because it ain’t going to work (laughing). Certain things blend and other things don’t. For me, it’s an ear thing. It’s partly that, and partly as you’ve noted, I mess around with several different instruments and that curiosity about tone color led me to the synthesizer, and that’s the reason I play, or try to play, all these different saxophones. I’m sure I’d be technically a much better player if I stuck to one or two of these instruments and really concentrated on just them because each one of them require full attention but that’s not the way I’m made. I just love having all of these different sounds and tone colors.

You’ve made a number of recordings as a solo unaccompanied artist, as well as performed solo and unaccompanied a number of times. Your recording, A Biography of the Rev. Absalom Dawe, is exceptional. As a solo artist on stage by yourself, how do you approach the performance aspect of one man alone on stage?

(With a humorous lilt to his voice) I do my utmost to make sure the audience loves me.
Is there a trick to this?
You smile a lot, and carry a big stick (laughing). When you approach any audience there is a two-way sense in that any audience is expectant, and if it’s worth anything, they’re a little nervous in a let’s-see-what’s-going-to-happen mode. You can share that through the use of anticipation and work with that aspect. But the way you’ve phrased the question, it’s obvious you understand the audience is your partner in any solo concert. They always are, in any live situation, and it’s always more fun if you can involve the whole audience in the pleasure of the music. Now there are certain places, and we all know the Bill Evans at the Village Vanguard recording where the audience is all talking, and there are times when you just have to get on with it even if the setting isn’t right. But, if you’ve got an audience that came to listen, then it’s nice to get on with them. One thing you can do is share timing with them. Are they reacting to what you’re doing? What is coming off best in the room you’re in? What are the different acoustics of the performance space? Sometimes one of the horns will feel really good in a particular room, whether it’s lined with wood or stone or the sound system’s characteristics, so then you hang on with that one more than you normally would. You look for the features that are coming across. If you’ve got a room that doesn’t like the baritone, then don’t fight it, play one of the other horns. That sort of thing becomes more and more important in the solo concert, that you become comfortable.

You’ve played in a number of big name big bands, so I was wondering what you think is the most important component a baritone saxophonist should bring to big band performance?

I think the one that’s sadly missing with professional and semi-professional bands is tuning. When you’re at the bottom of the chord and if that bottom of the chord is out of tune then there is no way the sound will be good. If the baritone is out of tune, from the bottom up the band has had it. You know, no matter what kind of sound the baritone player has, if the baritone player is in tune, that’s going to really help whatever is going on. Then the next thing is tone quality and section work and here again we’re back to the boring idea of listening. You have to really listen to the lead alto player and notice how he is really phrasing. Then you become more akin to like a violinist in a violin section where the job is to be precisely and exactly playing like the leader. That holds true and up to a point that applies to the entire saxophone section, except of course for the early Duke Ellington band. But they were such wonderful musicians. If you have that kind of a section then you can take the enormous liberties they took with phrasing. They all phrased their broad individual lines differently. Now Ellington was writing for them and he knew each members individual style and therefore wrote with that in mind, that they wouldn’t phrase it all the same way. Carney and (Johnny) Hodges were such great individuals that Ellington was able to get a one-of-a-kind sound out of them. They would usually all phrase differently, but interestingly enough not when they were needed to phrase the same. Ellington was able to balance that, but that is far and away much more complex and you could spend months talking about that kind of thing. But then there is also block writing and that requires a more regimented approach. So the basic answer is tuning first and then sound.

You played and toured with Gil Evans for a number of years. What was it like to play in that band?

Well, it was certainly like no other big band. It wasn’t, in fact, like a big band. At times it was pure anarchy, by design. Gil wanted to break away from the restrictions. The great joy of working with Gil’s band was first and foremost, Gil’s presence. He had that feeling of being a guru and master teacher. Like most great teachers, and Gil was certainly one of those, he didn’t really say much. You learned by his body language and the pleasure he took in listening to the music. Just the fact that he was there, and the fact that everyone in the band loved him so much and had so much respect for him in the first place, that they would work for him. They knew what he was after. It was the largest group I ever worked with that could make free improvisation work with that many people. Sometimes it was like 17-part counterpoint, which is astounding. There were moments in that band when you would listen to the sound and wonder, “Is this really happening around me?” There were quite a lot of moments of that. I remember my first gig with the band, after 30 minutes of constant playing I turned to the saxophonist next to me and asked what we were playing and he said, “I don’t know,” to which he then turned back to his horn and continued to play. We were playing something. Then someone might propose a riff, or Gil might just start something, and the whole band would be become like one and launch into Boogie Stop Shuffle (Mingus) and sound like one player. It was quite astounding and a remarkable experience. I wish I could have done it more than I did.

You have also been associated with The Brass Project big band with John Warren, whom you met first in the late 60s/early 70s. Could you talk about the Brass Project which goes back to 1981?

That band was really like a choir. It started out with being music that was largely improvised by trio: me, (drummer John) Marshall and (bassist Chris) Laurence. But it would have harmony provided by a chorus of brass players. Now that was the starting idea. I wanted to get (composer John) Warren involved because I wanted someone else to give a different sound to the writing so it didn’t all become me writing different backgrounds for myself. I wanted to be pushed by someone else’s writing. John would bring things in and out. Now what actually evolved, the more we went on, was that it developed into more structured types of music and pieces that were virtually suites and sounded great. It turned out that there were so many great soloists in the band, in fact they were all jazz soloists, so I would say, “No, you play this one,” to different members. So what we came up with was actually much more collective. The original idea was one thing, but the result over the time it was together was another. This was great, the way the music and group evolved. The group, unfortunately, had to stop for financial reasons. It was large, and there is no real funding in England for these kind of groups with all the best players. It became hard, as time went on, to always get the best players when you’ve just got odd jobs here and there. So instead of allowing the group to become compromised with people I didn’t feel comfortable with we said, “That’s great, we’ll leave it now, bye-bye.” It might come back again. The music and my will is there. I’d love to do it again.