For the 72nd birthday of the master saxophonist/woodwindist John Surman, here’s a feature piece that Jazziz gave me an opportunity to write about him in 2009, when he was gigging behind the ECM release, Brewster’s Rooster, with John Abercrombie, Drew Gress and Jack DeJohnette. (For an informative contemporaneous interview with Surman that takes a different angle, link to this on Larry Applebaum’s fine website.)
On the last day of August, John Surman, baritone saxophone in hand, stood stage left on Birdland’s bandstand, preparing to introduce his band. Surman had just blown the last note of the opening tune — an original called “Hilltop Dancer” — during the opening set of a week-long engagement. He launched the song with a lyrical, unaccompanied baritone intro, caressing every note. Then he goosed a subtle, open-ended solo from guitarist John Abercrombie with a roaring, hypnotic vamp before winding down the flow with a melodic variation of his initial statement
Surman looked across the stage at Abercrombie, shifted his glance to drummer Jack DeJohnette, and then gazed at bassist Drew Gress, standing to his left. Then he said, “The only person who actually needs an introduction here is me.”
Although Surman, an Oslo resident since 2004, was making his first-ever appearance as a leader in a New York City venue, this piece of self-deprecation was not precisely true. As the crowds that packed Birdland all week were well aware, Surman, 65 and well into his fifth decade in the music business, has long commanded deep respect amongst his peer group for his virtuosic command of the baritone and soprano saxophones and bass clarinet, and for the high quality of a discography that includes 17 leader dates for ECM since 1979. These include Surman’s meticulously crafted compositions and orchestrations that have framed his horns with string quintet, a brass ensemble, a free-boppish piano-bass-drums British quartet, various synth-driven soundscapes, and the lute-song music of Elizabethan composer John Dowland. Other recordings include a collaboration with singer Karin Krog, intuitive free improv projects with Paul Bley and Tony Oxley, and two documents of his ongoing electro-acoustic duo with DeJohnette, on which both trigger real-time grooves and textures within the flow.
The raison d’etre for this belated debut was Surman’s most recent release, Brewster’s Rooster (ECM), for which he convened DeJohnette, Abercrombie and Gress to interpret a suite of nine original tunes. Late afternoon on the following day, Surman sat in ECM’s well-appointed conference room in World Wide Plaza, a skyscraper six blocks north of Birdland, to discuss the disk.
“Manfred Eicher proposed it,” he said, crediting ECM’s founder as the ur-source of Brewster’s Rooster. He related that, during “a casual moment between takes” of his previous project, a duo with church organist Howard Moody issued with the prototypically ECM title Rain On the Window, Eicher said, “It’s about time you made a real jazz recording. We should do it in New York. What would you like to do?”
In Surman’s view, “real jazz recording” meant recording with a rhythm section, something he hadn’t done since 1993, when he made Stranger Than Fiction with his British quartet, although such work is a regular component of his professional life. “I can only put out a limited number of CDs,” he said, “and I want them to be specific, personal statements that reflect what I’m into at a particular time or to document a corpus of music I’ve written.”
That those “specific personal statements” primarily reference European art and vernacular music is in keeping with the fact that more than 95 per cent of Surman’s massive sessionography, which dates to 1965, has transpired either in Britain or on the European continent. “I stayed where the work was,” he said. He noted that in 1973 he had “followed in the footsteps” of fellow Englishmen Dave Holland and John McLaughlin with a six-month stint in Woodstock, New York. “The thought had crossed my mind that maybe it was important to be over here. But the fact was that, as John Abercrombie often says, ‘I’m a commuter; I live in America, but I work in Europe.’”
“It’s easier for an American musician to come to Europe, because of the tour support subsidized by European taxpayers,” Surman said. “Coming here was, ‘Yeah, could do it,’ but after calculating all the costs — the airfare and fees and all — somehow we never got around to it. It’s been even more difficult since 2001. I’ve done some duo things here with Jack, but then it’s the case of Jack DeJohnette and John who? If you’re not here and you’re not known, then club owners say, ‘Who is this guy?’”
Brewster’s Rooster contains no end of admirable qualities, not least the opportunity to hear a suite of Surman’s well-proportioned tunes interpreted by a unit of virtuosos who enjoy, as DeJohnette puts it, “playing what we don’t fuckin’ know!”
“We lay in wait for those moments when one thing sets off another,” said DeJohnette, who is Surman’s brother-in-law. (Surman’s son, Ben, is married to DeJohnette’s daughter, Minya.) He and Abercrombie had joined the conversation as afternoon turned to early evening. “That seems to happen a lot in the improvisation, and that makes it fun. Music has seriousness, but the main thing is, it should be fun.”
Surman chimed in. “It would be important to point out that we worked together in a radio show when I lived in Woodstock.
Abercrombie picked up the story. “It was called ‘Harry Lovett: Man Without a Country.’ There were several episodes. We would take these different parts.” Abercrombie switched into a nasal, Truman Capote voice. “My part in it was Donald Dastardly, and I was evil.”
“I was the Reverend Right Time,” DeJohnette remarked, adding that he and Surman shared a deep affection for The Goon Show. Surman raised his voice to a falsetto. “Ah, he’s falling into the water now!!” The brothers-in-law responded in unison, “Who-oooaaa…”
“We so much bonded over the humor,” Surman stated. “I immediately thought of each of them when Manfred brought this up, but I never thought that we would actually do gigs. The idea was to have a day’s rehearsal, and record, so I looked for material open enough that everyone could be comfortable. There was no intention to pretend that it was a hot, tight band. In fact, the very looseness was the joy of doing it. That’s a statement, because this improvisational element, the fact that the music is shifting and mercurial, is important to me. I am not ithati interested in putting together a tight quartet playing tight stuff, because that’s what I do when I write for strings.
“What’s important in improvisation is give-and-take, to know your moment to get out there and pull the cart along or, when you hear someone else emerging with something, to step back and let that go through. That interests me more than chops, which result out of necessity. You’ve got to play high on a baritone. Once you get down in the lower-middle register, it’s hard to cut through. So sometimes, just to say ‘Yeah!’ as a baritone player, I’ve got to get up there and scream. That’s probably why I play the soprano, so I can soar above a lot of it.”
The improvised context is a familiar point of contact for Surman and DeJohnette, who first recorded together on guitarist Mick Goodrick’s 1976 ECM date, In Pas(s)ing. By DeJohnette’s account, they first met in August 1968, while DeJohnette was in London with Bill Evans for a one-month engagement at Ronnie Scott’s, the top-shelf club where, as Dave Holland said in a separate conversation, “young musicians could pretty much play all day and all night.” Holland was playing bass with the opening act, singer Elaine Delmar, whose accompanying trio also comprised pianist Pat Smythe and drummer John Marshall.
“I was sitting in with them with my melodica every night,” DeJohnette recalled. “I told Marshall and Pat to get some of their guys to come down and jam. So the word went around, ‘Jack DeJohnette wants to play some jams.’ At that time, a lot of the American musicians who came over were not interested in hooking up with the British musicians. That’s where I met John and Dave, and some of the other great talent there.
By 1968, Surman was one of London’s busiest jazzmen, paying the rent as a professional journeyman in high-level trad, blues, hard bop, and Calypso settings. He also played in John McLaughlin’s pre-Mahavishnu Indo-jazz-rock hybrids, as well as with a diverse set of big bands and orchestras. Toward the fulfillment of his own creative muse, Surman led a post-bop octet, a plugged-in quartet with pianist John Taylor and Marshall, an open-form trio with Holland and drummer Alan Jackson, and a subsequent one with bassist Barre Phillips and drummer Stu Martin, both American expats..
“My phone rang one day, perhaps in 1965, and it was John, asking me to sub that night for Harry Miller, a bass player he often worked with,” Holland recalled. “Before we went on, he gave me some music to look at. On the first tune, he’d written the theme, and at the end it just said ‘open.’ I said, ‘What do you mean, open?’ John said, ‘We’re going to play whatever you want after we play this theme. Play whatever you hear.’ It was the very first time I’d played in an open-form setting. A whole new world opened up.
“John and I became very close friends,” Holland continued. “We’d stay up all hours listening to music, checking out new records, talking about developments. We were all listening to Coltrane’s music and Joe Henderson, Sonny Rollins, Miles, Ornette and Cecil Taylor — all these influences were coalescing. A lot of mixtures of music were occurring in London then, and I had a chance to work in many situations with John. I think I wrote my very first song for that trio with John and Alan, who played good time and swung but also could open up the music and take it in new directions. A lot of what we did was very open-ended and exploratory, and we’d land on different fields and grooves and tonalities. For me, it was a precursor to the Sam Rivers trio that I was in during the ’70s.”
Speaking of the British music scene in the ’60s, Surman noted, “Part of the excitement was a general feeling of ‘It all works. Whatever suits you, bring it on.’ I don’t think it was just confined to the U.K., but the U.K. certainly was a hotbed. It was a melting pot. The South Africans and guys from the West Indies were there. A huge blues interest was coming up through blues musician Alexis Korner; it was all the buzz because Clapton and the Stones were emerging and going out — although they were playing closer to copies of the blues stuff. European musicians had inhibitions about jazz, like, ‘Well, it’s a beret,’ ‘It’s a goatee beard,’ ‘We’ll never be as good as the Yanks at doing that.’ Suddenly it was like, ‘Well, hang on. All this stuff works, doesn’t it?’ Then people stopped worrying and got on with it. Americans like Barre and Stu passed through, and said, ‘That sounds good to me; I’ll have a piece of that.’ Miles and Tony Williams were saying, ‘Hey, I like that bass player.’ Suddenly, a lot of confidence. We all thought, ‘We can’t be so bad, then. We have something to offer.’”
Over the ensuing decade, Surman, a son of Devonshire, actualized this proposition by drawing upon his English heritage, incorporating folk songs and also vocabulary contained in the choral music he’d sung as a boy soprano. Synthesizer first appears in his work in 1972 (“I bought one as soon as I could afford to”), after which he increasingly immersed himself in electronic music, using synth to dialogue with British saxophonists Alan Skidmore and Mike Osborne in the group S.O.S., and weaving sonic tapestries for a Parisian dance company between 1973 and 1978. By 1979, when Surman debuted for ECM, he had morphed from the conventions of free jazz and fusion toward a more consonant harmonic context.
“During those early years, I was learning to play,” he recalled. “Technique was developing, ideas were forming and brick walls were being run into. ‘What am I playing? I’d like to play like Sonny, but it’s not like that. Is something wrong?’ Then suddenly, “No. That’s actually me. That’s what I sound like. Well, you’re going to have to live with it. Just carry on.’
“When I was starting out with this traditional-jazz business, I had a go at the trumpet, the trombone, the banjo. Anything that played, I wanted to know how to play it. So here came the synthesizer, this other sound source that made very interesting noises. I wanted to get a piece of that.”
However far-flung his investigations, Surman “never experienced the feeling that I want a purely European sound,” in contrast to the aesthetic evolution of such European contemporaries as Evan Parker and Peter Brötzmann. “For me, finding jazz opened the door to music-making, so I always think of myself as a jazz musician.” Surman traced this attitude not only to his collegial partnerships with American jazz musicians, but also to his early fascination with Duke Ellington’s contrapuntal section writing — he channels baritone-sax icon Harry Carney on Brewster’s Rooster with a gorgeous “Chelsea Bridge” — and Ellington’s emphasis on the idiosyncrasies of each of his musicians. He also notes that his apprentice years coincided with the migration to Europe of such individualistic saxmen as Don Byas, Dexter Gordon and Johnny Griffin, all of whom he witnessed close-up in London.
“You could recognize all of these guys right away — even the ones who weren’t so well-known, like Booker Ervin,” he said. “This individuality of sound was one of great joys for me of jazz music, and that feeling of wanting to find one’s own sound—to not be afraid to be different—was important to me.”
In all the various idioms that he renders, Surman actualizes this notion both in his penchant for melodic expression and his ability to emulate the quality of the human voice on each of his horns. “That’s me, the man with the melodies,” he said ruefully. “Sometimes I wish I could do more. When I heard Michael Brecker play as he did, inside the harmony, I’d think, ‘Christ, I wish I could do that.’ But that’s not what’s happening.”
“John gets such a beautiful sound on all his instruments,” Abercrombie said. “He plays soprano so differently than other people.”
“It’s a full-bodied sound,” DeJohnette added. “He can play adventurously and rhythmically, but there’s always a song. It comes from his heart. He’s got the head, too, but it always communicates. It makes me feel great. There’s also his ability to listen. That’s what we have in common, an ability to listen, which keeps us from getting stuck in some of the clichéd kinds of playing.”
To avoid cliché, of course, is the default aesthetic of this cohort. “I don’t think any of us have unidirectional feelings about music,” Surman noted. “We’re dabblers. We’ve had a bit of a fool-around here, had a go at that, looked at this. John’s group is by no means your typical jazz quartet, and goodness knows what Jack is going to be doing next. We share a curiosity about the different paths music can take.”
Which raised the question of whether John Surman’s new quartet might have legs.
His mates left the door open. “That depends on what everyone is doing,” DeJohnette said. “But we’d be happy to do it, sure.”
“I like the idea of cycling back and doing something organic with musicians you’ve played with before,” Abercrombie responded. “I’ve tried to keep all my own groups going, at least the current ones. Maybe 18 months down the line, John gets in touch with us again. ‘Want to do volume two? Here are some ideas.’ Maybe the newer one would be more free music, or maybe contributions from all of us.”
Embarrassed, Surman lowered his head. “I haven’t even asked them if they want to do it ever again,” he said. “But all of us are interested in putting ourselves in different contexts. You’re forced to come up with something.” He laughed. “What else can you do when you’re on the bandstand with those guys?”