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.”