John Surman began playing jazz as a schoolboy in his native Devon in 1962. As luck would have it, the group that he was asked to join was led by composer-bandleader Mike Westbrook, then studying art at a local college. This connection was to prove a fruitful one for both, and so began a journey that would take Surman around the world and see him develop not only as a musician and composer but into a true jazz original.
Back in 1962, jazz happened in big bands or trios, quartets and quintets. By the beginning of the next decade, Surman was showing the world just how many different ways jazz could be made. Looking back over 50 years at Surman’s career, he had recorded solo with synthesizers, in saxophone trios and in trios with voice and drums, with brass bands and big bands. There have been albums with choirs, duos with church organ and duos with drums, as well as works for sax and string quartet.
No matter how he makes jazz – whether with a string quartet or jazz rhythm section – it is always Surman’s music, always his distinctive voice you hear. That deep, throaty baritone sax calling with warmth and authority or else with a highly personal cri de coeur. That lightly stepping soprano dancing to some folk-inspired melody or spitting like a snake. Or that dark, brooding bass clarinet from which few others, if any, can draw such tender emotion. Then there is the music itself proving finally that jazz is a world music and a way of making music and not a style or genre.
You can take the boy out of Devon but, thankfully, you can’t take Devon out of the boy. Home isn’t just the place you come from or the place where you live. It’s all the places you carry inside you, those that shape you and your work. Surman’s travels have taken him across the globe and back and they have helped to make his music a poetry of place and landscape. His travels took him first to London in 1962 to study music at the London College of Music. Those days, would-be jazz musicians studied classical music. Jazz was something you did at night at jam sessions and kept secret from your tutors. Back then, was “jam-session crazy” and along with musicians such as saxophonist Mike Osborne, bassist Harry Miller and drummer Alan Jackson, they were constantly looking for places to play. The famed Peanuts Club at the King’s Head in Bishopsgate was a particular favourite venue, while Ronnie Scott’s Old Place in Gerrard Street, for a couple of years, was a regular haunt. But it was more than good fun or showing off some new lick or scale. Perhaps it didn’t seem like it at the time but it was really about developing a music that was simultaneously jazz but British too, a music that could draw sustenance from a home-grown set of musical cultures.
Surman’s first opportunity to record came in a quartet led by pianist Peter Lemer. That album, appropriately titled Local Colour, was for the fabled ESP label. Recordings with Mike Westbrook’s Concert Band followed, alongside friends such as Alan Jackson, Harry Miller, saxophonist Alan Skidmore and Mike Osborne, as well as playing blues with British R&B legend Alexis Korner. Surman’s chance to make his own debut on vinyl came through producer Peter Eden, then working for Decca and their Deram label. The eponymous John Surman (Deram) came out in 1968. Side 1 featured Surman’s Calypso jazz group co-led with Trinidadian pianist Russell Henderson, while Side 2 featured Surman’s own compositions with an 11-piece band that included many of Britain’s finest young players. If anything How Many Clouds Can You See? (Deram) from 1969 was even better mixing sax and drum duets and larger ensembles and with much of the second side devoted to the title track suite composed for a quartet featuring John Taylor on piano, American bass player Barre Phillips and drummer Tony Oxley.
In those years, Surman was ubiquitous on the London scene. He was in the Ronnie Scott Band. He played with John McLaughlin on the seminal album, Extrapolation, and on Mike Gibbs’ first two releases. He was an early member of Chris McGregor’s Brotherhood of Breath and, of course, continued to work with Mike Westbrook. Still in his mid-twenties, Surman was, nevertheless, beginning to look further afield to Europe, not just for work but for new situations and musicians to play with. His search led to early associations with French saxophonist/clarinettist Michel Portal, Swedish trombonist Eje Thelin and French organist Eddie Louiss. That doyen of British jazz critics, Charles Fox, described Surman as “The Common Market Jazz Man,” a wonderfully apt and pertinent comment. In fact, despite keeping a home in the UK, Surman has largely been resident in continental Europe since the late 1960s.
It has been a career uniquely marked by breadth and change but also by the parallel strand of continuity. This is seen both in his ongoing associations with certain musicians – with virtuoso bassists Chris Laurence and Barre Phillips, with fellow baritone saxophonist John Warren and with drummers John Marshall and Jack DeJohnette, first met when the American was at Ronnie’s with Bill Evans. Pianist John Taylor has been another regular associate, as has Paul Bley and as, of course, has Surman’s partner, the great Norwegian jazz singer Karin Krog. But that sense of continuity is also there to hear in Surman’s music, whether it is partnered by Chris Laurence and the strings of Trans4mation Quartet, solo – overdubbed and with synthesizers – or at the front of a rhythm section. His horns seem to drip with a sense of history, of time past and time present. And they seem to resonate with the landscapes of his boyhood Devon or his new home in Norway.
For his final album for Deram, Surman gave over the session to the compositions of his close friend, Canadian John Warren. Tales of the Algonquin remains one of the great British jazz albums of all time and Surman’s playing, as main soloist, does much to seal the record’s reputation. When Peter Eden left Decca to head up Pye Record’s new progressive rock label, he took Surman with him. By that point, the saxophonist had formed The Trio with two American émigrés, drummer Stu Martin and Barre Phillips. Due to work permit issues for Martin and Phillips much of the group’s career was spent in mainland Europe but the records (five in all) they made together, in particular their debut, The Trio (Dawn), confirm their position and status, as one of the finest small jazz groups of all time.
In fact, the Trio worked so hard in the early 1970s that the experience left Surman exhausted and close to burn out. After recording their second record for Dawn, Conflagration, with assorted guests including Chick Corea, Dave Holland, Kenny Wheeler, Mike Osborne and Alan Skidmore, Surman took a sabbatical from the business. He did, however, come back to make the solo album, Westering Home, for Island in 1972, a set which revealed both his interest in the potential of the synthesizer and his abiding love of English and Celtic folk music.
Surman’s exhaustion coincided with the incapacity of two close friends – Mike Osborne, who had suffered a psychotic episode, and Alan Skidmore, who had been seriously injured in a road accident. Together, they took the unprecedented step for the time of forming an all-saxophone group, called with more than a hint of irony S.O.S. With Skidmore adding drums and Surman synths, the group made music that was exciting, adventurous and rich in texture. In fact, the trio spent several months in 1974 working with choreographer Carolyn Carlson at the Paris Opéra performing music for the ballet Sablier Prison.
It was not until the late 1970s that, free from other contractual obligations, Surman was able to begin the longest and most successful musical association of his career with ECM Records. He had already performed on Barre Phillips’ Mountainscapes and guitarist Mick Goodrick’s In Pas(s)ing, and ECM was just what Surman needed. Here was a record label that did not think jazz had to be about leader and rhythm or had to operate within an American template of what the music should sound like. Anything was possible. The first record Surman made for the label was Upon Reflection and came out in 1979. It was the first of six solo releases that Surman would make over the years for ECM, the most recent being the beautiful and much-fêted Saltash Bells (2012). But once again, the sheer breadth of Surman’s musical imagination was to be given full rein by ECM.
Writing in the early 1990s, musician and critic Ian Carr said of Surman, “John Surman is that rare phenomenon in jazz, a musician who was brilliant and innovative at the beginning of his career and has gone on evolving and maturing, so that in mid-career his music has great technical and emotional breadth and depth.” What was true then is equally or even more true today.
Over a career now in its sixth decade, it is impossible to reference every recording Surman has been involved with. There are in excess of 40 as leader or co-leader and more than 100 others as guest or sideman. As he points out, even these hardly scratch the surface of his work across jazz and other musics. In any given year, he still does a fair amount of playing as a saxophone player with a rhythm section. Some of that might be in work with Karin Krog. Or it might be with his quartet with John Taylor, Chris Laurence and John Marshall, with whom he first recorded in 1973 on the album Morning Glory (Island) with guests trombonist Malcolm Griffiths and guitarist Terje Rypdal and again in 1993 for ECM on Stranger Than Fiction. And, of course, Surman has also worked regularly with bassist Miroslav Vitous and guitarist John Abercrombie in their various groups. Yet, at the same time, Surman’s work – certainly in its recorded manifestations – is often associated with other more unusual projects be they solo or duo releases, such as The Adventures Of Simon Simon with Jack DeJohnette (ECM 1981), or the intriguing and ethereal Proverbs and Songs with John Taylor on organ and with Howard Moody conducting the Salisbury Festival Chorus.
And, of course, Surman has also worked with Chris Laurence and the Trans4mation Quartet, specially formed by Chris’ violinist partner Rita Manning for the project. Two CDs have resulted to date, Coruscating (1999) and The Spaces In Between (2006). More recently the group performed at King’s Place as part of the London Jazz Festival in celebration of Surman’s 70th birthday. That concert also saw the London premiere of a suite commissioned by the wonderful Australian recorder player, Genevieve Lacey, on which Lacey herself guested. Another recent project involved a commission to write a piece for the Bolsterstone Male Voice Choir. Lifelines, combining piano, saxophone and voices. Not only had Surman written the music, he had also provided its libretto, a remarkable story of industry and empire, of transformation and unfulfilled promise.
Two other recordings deserve particular mention. The first of these saw gave Surman the opportunity to work once more with John Warren. The record that resulted, The Brass Project, featured a seven-piece brass ensemble alongside Surman on reeds and old sparring partners Chris Laurence and John Marshall on bass and drums, with compositions shared by Surman and Warren. Here, the brass instruments served as a kind of chorus set against the trio of Surman, Laurence and Marshall and it is an album rich in texture and musical colour. The second recording to note is Free and Equal (2003). Though the music was composed by Surman alone, the album is rightly co-credited to Jack DeJohnette, who worked with Surman on its creation. Featuring as well the classical ensemble London Brass, the work is inspired by the United Nation Declaration of Human Rights from 1948 and the conviction that we have some way to go to achieve those rights for all on this planet. One is tempted to suggest that never has the declaration or the United Nations been served so well in music or indeed in any of the arts.
Just turned 70 years old, there is no sign of a quiet retirement on Surman’s part. Resident now in Norway, he looks to a future of possibility and potential. His music will no doubt continue to take many different forms and embrace everything from string quartets to choirs, as well as more conventional jazz settings. Two things remain certain. That music will reflect the wonders of jazz and his own richly fertile musical imagination.
Duncan Heining, author of Trad Dads, Dirty Boppers and Free Fusioneers: British Jazz 1960-1975 (Equinox 2012)