Sunday, 29 March 2009

JOHN SURMAN: SUCH WINTERS OF MEMORY


JOHN SURMAN:
SUCH WINTERS OF MEMORY*

John Surman plays saxophone… Andrew Darlington tells the full tale…
Through 1980 I did a series of Jazz interviews, with the likes of
Ian Carr, Mike Westbrook… and John Surman, with a number of
specific intentions. Obviously, expanding my journalistic base into
the other adventurous music-zones I enjoyed, but also using my
precarious ‘foot-in-the-door’ goodwill with the press to shove a
meaningful agenda. The music press favours trend-sensitive names who
can be advantageously cover-blurbed – the latest raw ‘Next-Big-Thing’
three-chord wonders who’ve been together for two months.
But there are musicians outside that definition devoted to their craft,
testing the boundaries through instrumental skills and dexterity,
who have been working for years, and decades, without the press visibility
they deserve. Needless to say, my strategy failed. I worked hard on this
valued interview, but it stayed unpublished. While John Surman
continued, and continues as a breathtaking presence on the music scene…

We are midway through a particularly stratospheric John Surman solo. He’s stood, heels together, feet splayed, knees bagged outwards from the centre like the weight of the unwieldy bronze-flashing baritone sax drags him gravity-wise into elegant slouch, pulling him down towards scuffed brown shoes, leaving only the tone to float free into uncharted infinity. Like he’s tuning in via the sequence of fingered pads and exhalations of breath to radio scratch signals from the Voyager spacecraft way out beyond Saturn, gaps between notes forming clear Cassini divisions between swirling star-shocked rings in the black black hit of space. Hey, how many clouds can you see up there, John?

In the audience some eight hundred shell-likes arc to four hundred frontal lobes in ecstatic recognition of their own profundity, but Alan Skidmore is just stood to one side trading an expression of vast amusement, alternating it with a look of bemused but puzzled interest. Surman blows with precision and delicacy, like he’s conducting open heart surgery on his axe, but ‘Skid’ wanders, paces from the mikes and coiling cables across the parquet floor walled in waves of sound, he edges the thick faded maroon drapes aside sufficient to insinuate black hair and beard through the crack, to peer amplified by thick specs, out at the slim segment of Leeds beyond. The snow comes fast now, the freeze-out falling on a pavement already yellowed with sodium streetlight and frosted-up lines of beat-up cars tethered to rows of misaligned meters. The temperature does no-one favours.

Skidmore ducks back inside, Surman’s solo is winding down through fractured patterns of exhausted chording, snatching notes from the complex labyrinth of his horn, back towards the ensemble signal. He watches the audience watching him. The Hall is chock-chocked with people. In general terms the mass audience temperature for jazz is as dicey as those moody streets when it comes to supporting such events. This tour is Arts Council funded, kiss of life’d into the provinces by subsidy. What’s that mean for the state of the art? Perhaps something along those lines is occurring to Skid? Or perhaps more mundane he’s just anticipating the sub-zero drive south to Bristol for the next tour date? I’d like to know. For this band, this stellar configuration of the best and the brightest in UK jazz ain’t about to compromise, financial buoyancy or no. They take it hard and they take it to the limits with no concessions for the squeamish, their musical changes are taken at cardiac arrest speeds, so sharp, fast and hair-raising you’re left pleading for seat-belts. This tour is a self indulgence in which the audience become almost incidental participants, something the attuned can pick up on, to hell with the cold streets and the falling climate and the mass-audience freeze-out…

Midway through the intermission, in an alcove in a Bar that’s all dragged up in matching plush, but equally faded maroon upholstery I’ve got Surman trapped across the table from me. I’m hemmed in with time allowances and a million observations that either won’t come or can’t be fitted in, and sure, I’m nervous and on edge. All the artists and poets and musicians I’ve met and argued with and interviewed this is the guy who most scares the shit outa me, this is the guy for whom I’ve got the most respect. Not that he’s inaccessible. The opposite. He’s open and guileless, talks in smooth uninterrupted flow with a lubrication of marked Devon inflection, as genial as if we’re mates of long standing. There’s something of the walrus about Surman, something about the face - pliable and expressive, humorously rounded under the shaggy Deluxe fringe of hair lapping down his forehead, over his ears, and spilling raggedly over the collar of his denim jacket.

What would I like to ask? Well – for starters I’d word methodically album by album through each twitch and tremor of his incredible career, from the Mike Westbrook Bands of the late sixties, The Trio, the S.O.S. work, through into his recent Continental forays, his shifting alliances and innovative involvements with the most exciting artists in jazz – ex-Weather Reporter Miroslav Vitous, Stan Tracy, Chick Corea, ex-Miles Davis sidesman Jack DeJohnette, and others. Later I’d toss in my urge to quiz him about his stance on the state of the art. But I got something around a meagre twenty minutes and the impositions of some degree of etiquette. So…

It’s a while since you’ve played provincial dates I observe. “In this country, yes. I don’t get to play in England very often.”

Why is that, economic reasons? “Well, it’s a mixture of factors. Principally the group I work with, the Miroslav Vitous Quartet, includes an American, and Jon Christenson, a Norwegian. John Taylor is now in the band but originally there was an American pianist as well (Kenny Kirkland). There are innumerable problems getting a group like that to come over and tour. There are only one or two tours in this country for a jazz group anyway during a year on a scale that can finance people coming from any distance. So that is what’s been happening for some time, I’ve worked since 1970 with foreign musicians. I haven’t had the time to sit down and just for the sake of doing it, come and play in Britain. There just are not the opportunities here.” A moment’s hesitation, his insubstantially bearded lower lip thrust forward in deliberation. “Yes. I think that’s the nub of the problem.”

So to the exact details of this tour. This “TENTH ANNIVERSARY OF THE CONTEMPORARY MUSIC NETWORK” tour. The band is a pick-up septet of Britain’s finest, a temporary reunion of friends and former colleagues that provides a splendid opportunity for Surman’s long-awaited return to English venues. Nominally the seven-piece band is led by the mighty figure of Mike Osborne, but for the fact that the near-legendary saxist is laid low and had to drop out. “Mike is very ill and I’m sure he’ll not be playing for quite some time. In a way it’s a sad occasion for us” Surman volunteers.

I wondered what the practical problems were of working with such a ‘beheaded’ line-up? “Well, they were considerable” he confesses with disarming candour. “But fortunately, having known ‘Ossie’ for some time – since about 1963, I’ve a pretty good idea of what he had in mind.” For the first half of the set they’d worked largely from Osborne’s scores, premiering a new suite – for which John leaks a sectional title, “Lord Duncan’s Revenge” – in which large improvisational areas have to be fleshed out despite Osborne’s truancy. “Yes, we’re working from his melodic and thematic ideas. Which really are quite suitable to all of us. We’re used to them. It’s more or less a case of getting on with enjoying the music in Mike’s absence. In the second half we’re going to play a mixture of pieces that were written by Mike before this tour was planned, and things that Alan Skidmore had in his house, and a ballad that I found. We’ve supplemented it with material written by other members of the group and it’s varying a little bit as the tour progresses and we get a chance to look at some other things. I don’t think there were too many problems in the understanding of the music, but of course the music won’t be the same without Ossie. Of course not”. A pause. “This is still Mike’s tour. Nobody’s jumped in, I’ve just nominally taken over communications between the musicians and the Arts Council, to help out.”

What’s it like working seven-piece after so long in small group settings? “This kind of format I would never choose to work with” he admits. “Four horn players and so on, not in this kind of way. It’s an enormous outfit to control, and we all control it. No-one is the conductor. Each of us participate. It’s very difficult. There are so many elements that things tend to stay on the same level because it’s very difficult to shift. It’s like the difference between sailing a dingy, and moving a Supertanker! It takes a couple of miles to heave it round to another key with seven guys. Whereas with three you can go like that – ZING!!!”

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The jazz generation that spawned Surman, Skidmore and Osborne was one of the most incandescent and innovative in British jazz. As early as the mid-sixties John found himself part of a pool of outlandishly talented London based musicians in a continual state of flux, performing in a variety of combinations under an often arbitrary rota of group names. Henry Lowther later of Soft Machine, Ian Carr destined to form Nucleus, Keith Tippett long before he conceived the fifty-piece group Centipede, composer Michael Garrick, Skidmore who was then recording with John Mayall and Eric Clapton, Canadian John Warren, and many others. But arguably the most important association for Plymouth-born Surman was with Mike Westbrook. Westbrook “was born in High Wycombe, but spent an awful lot of his youth down in Torquay”, which led to their meeting at the Plymouth Art School in 1963. Westbrook’s subsequent Jazz Orchestra forms a convenient reference point for a number of reasons; five of the seven players here tonight are Westbrook alumni, trumpeter Dave Holdsworth, pianist John Taylor, trombonist Malcolm Griffiths, Skidmore, and Surman himself.

Me, I first became aware of Surman’s playing when they televised Westbrook sessions from Ronnie Scotts Club. “That’s the first time I became aware of myself” he retaliates. “From Ronnie Scotts? Oh yes, I’d forgotten that. That was a long time ago."

I hazard 1966-’67. A period when John seemed to be operating from within the massive iconoclastic shadow of American giant John Coltrane. Was he working from a conscious ‘Trane launch-pad? “No, I’m working from a music thing. It’s not as specific as that. For a couple of years he would have been a very strong influence, same as a lot of other people. I mean, we all go through fashions and fancies and no more so than when you’re learning to play music. But I fortunately quite rapidly discovered that I was totally unable to play any of that clever shit that other people play, and I had to find something of my own to play, and that’s I guess why I’m here today.”

That seems a very self-deprecating attitude in the light of the standards he’s achieved and maintained, but there’s no artifice or phoney modesty. Surman exudes solidity, a down-to-earth no-nonsense quality that at first seems to sit at odds with his artistry – then enhances it. To John, his skills or limitations are just “a fact of life. I think you grab the talent or the ability that you have and nurture it like crazy and stop chasing after things that exist on the outside. You look inside yourself and see what it is that you CAN do. I don’t think of myself as a fabulous musician or anything. What I’ve done is to turn to advantage the little things that I can do, and I’ve worked on those so that I present my view of the world – rather than something that sounds a little bit like somebody else. That’s what it all comes down to.”

The first three years of the seventies witnessed a decisive switch away from the insular coterie approval he’d earned through his largely London based solo and quartet work, and his spots on the Westbrook albums (in particular the searing anti-war suite ‘Marching Song’ – 1969, Deram SML 1047/8), and saw him shoved under the scrutiny of much wider, international audiences. But I suggest to him, his formative associations remained – and remain constant, and that he’s returned to work repeatedly in a number of different constellations with the same cognoscente of ex-Westbrook people. “Yes, that’s true, over the years the contact has stayed. We’ve been good friends.” A friendship that’s honed the musical report to telepathic levels of intensity, until Osborne’s compositions “could just as easily been a couple of ideas that we’ve come up with, they’re in the same vein. But musically all these guys are well grown-up and they can take care of themselves perfectly well.”

The vehicle Surman hijacked to achieve his own escape velocity from cliquedom was The Trio, originally brought together in a Belgian cottage, it allied his soprano, baritone, and bass-clarinet horns in a three-way conversation with two ex-patriot Americans – bassist Barre Philips, and an ex-Ellington drummer, the late Stu Martin. “When Martin wants to Rock” said Surman, “he’s a killer!” They signed to Dawn, a commercial as distinct from a closet jazz label, and the two albums that followed illustrated the emergence of John’s style into fierce maturity, coming out from underneath any accusation of detectable influences and into overdrive, a clean clear personal voice establishing him as a jazz presence of major stature (‘The Trio’ – 1970, Dawn DNLS 3006). He described this attacking soloing technique – as displayed on his “Afore the Morrow” and “Caractacus” compositions – in terms suggesting an instinctive approach, one that ditched conscious control of the intellect to achieve a perfect balance of intention and ability, fueling the combination with a glowing timbre of belligerency. “Once I’ve started there’s no outward control” he explained. “It becomes the process, whatever it is that makes you play in the first place.”

Yet the release of the second Trio LP, the well received ‘Conflagration’ (1970, Dawn DNLS 3022), and the subsequent disintegration of the group led paradoxically to a brief retirement to his Kent farmhouse home. Reasons stated at the time were inexplicit ‘disillusionment’. What form did that take? Was it a disenchantment with the jazz form itself, with the artistic or technical limitations of the music, or was it something more insidious, like the economic problems inherent in eking a living out of what, at best, remains a minority music? “No, it was purely personal” he asserts. Then amends it to “it transpired to be a purely musical and personal problem about myself, and my approach to music. I said I can’t go on and on and on playing and playing and playing. I need periods of space inbetween the things I play and the things I do. That’s what I discovered from that period. I’d just been playing continuously for years without a moment to think, reassess or re-evaluate. I hadn’t even understood what I was as a musician, as a player, an artist, or whatever. All sorts of questions. I’d just fallen into it, I’d just been doing it – which was fantastic, until suddenly you have to stop and say ‘what am I doing, what does all this mean?’ And it was that kind of crisis. A moment to step back from the work and ask ‘what the hell is going on?’”

The lay-off was terminated in Surman’s characteristically unpredictable style, with his first truly solo work, the beautifully slow-burning ‘Westering Home’ (1972, Island HELD10). For his debut product for Island records he used a pristine clear production to float his melodic reeds into a unique weld of distinctly English phrasing, an unmistakably personal sax style – betraying a sensitivity deep-rooted in Folk and pastoral accenting – which he set gliding low across the surface of fathomless wells of swirling sound, the results of eclectic forays into studio hardware. The composite whole blends into a web of multi-layered texture in which he played and overdubbed all parts himself. It’s an album that runs rings around the moon, and threw critics into a morass of category confusion. He extended this free area of experimentation with electronics into the follow-up, ‘Morning Glory’ (1973, Island ILPS9237), recorded live in Canterbury with Soft Machine drummer John Marshall, a set that further documents his dialogue with synthesisers, pre-recorded screens of tape, pirouetting loops and violent pulsations. A hydra-headed mix hissing and whiplash snapping with vibrant energy. This was 1973!

A media that (rightly) applauds John Lydon for pointedly ignoring commercial criteria in his so far short term Pil ventures largely failed to pick up on Surman’s equally intriguing, but considerably more challenging and detailed ground-breaking work spread clear across the decade. His subsequent reunion with Skidmore and Osborn in S.O.S. is an object exercise for numbering the beast. The S.O.S. project was an all-saxophone trio with Skid manically doubling percussion and Surman adding keyboard electronics. In performance, and on vinyl (‘S.O.S.’ – 1975, Ogun Records OG400), the combination was hair-raising. Horns lie in wait between tracks, then dash together in violent tonal encounters of moving bodies, there’s no wasted repetition and no blank phrase fired. Twin, then triple saxes assail in fearsome collisions of all registers, they occupy the same portions of space, concurrences of events coming together without apparent causal connections, but tight as traps, fully interlocking, ideas charted invisibly, flying around the startled air between them. As compelling, brittle and intense as the most adventurous electronic Rock, it made none of the condescentions expected of the wall-to-wall treacle often passed off as ‘Fusion’. No subtlety traded off for populism.

Observing that the current septet tour is bereft of such electro-fripperies, I probe into his attitude towards synths. “I’ve not stopped doing it” he retorts. “I just don’t do it all the time. It’s a difficult thing to organise. It’s something that takes a lot of equipment and somebody to help set it up. But no, it’s just one of the instruments that I play.”

The shift to Manfred Eicher’s German label saw Surman adding synths to Barre Philips critically lauded ‘Mountainscapes’ epic in 1976 (ECM1076), and out beyond even those edges of illusion into more recent configurations. John’s gutsy playing often igniting vital flashpoints of energy to Eicher’s house-style tendency to introspective aestheticism. “I’m working now for ECM records” he summarises. “I made a solo record called ‘Upon Reflection’ (1979 – ECM1148). And there’s a new record that’s just come out with me and Jack DeJohnette playing in duo, and I use quite a lot of synthesisers. Like the S.O.S. thing. You‘ve heard that?”
My assent and expression of unforced approval seems somehow less than such peaks of contemporary jazz deserve.

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Meanwhile, in another part of the universe, Rip Rig and Panic play, and they play it well, sneaking up on the unwary with a studied infiltration of Rahsaan Roland Kirk references the audience can lap up almost subliminally. Tom Waits acts out his bop-hipster games, allusions flashing back to Forties Mintons and Kerouac paperbacks of Beatnik jazz and nighthawks at the all-night diners, and he makes a first class cult of himself. While, at the price of an occasionally acceptable degree of blandness – the stylish appropriation of certain cross-over points, electric bass, banks of synth keyboards and a lacing of Funk rhythms – it’s possible to carve out mass markets for the Weather Reports and the George Bensons, the Chick Coreas and the Herbie Hancocks. Surman himself is no sloth in the Fusion stakes – anyone who ain’t checked out his ECM work with the Vitous group, or his Jack DeJohnette album, just don’t know what can be achieved with jazz and the smooth infusion of electricity. A technology that amplifies, not detracts from, emotion.

Perhaps the whole equation comes down to packaging, the striking of acceptable postures? I’d like to know Surman’s thoughts on that. To what extent jazz should allow itself to become preserved in the elitist/purist aspic of an Arts Council safety net, or to what degree it should go out and shake hands with a wider public, and risk infection of the palms? Like, at one point he recalled his previous provincial engagements in the U.K. “The last tour I did was with Stan Tracey, a duo tour. Before that it was many years before.” I’d asked if that tour was to promote the Tracey/Surman album (‘Sonatinas’ from Ogun records, 1978, Steam Records SJ106). He seemed to find the suggestion amusing, his smile flashes, and is gone as fast as a reflection in a hub-cap. “No. Just to play music.” Like touring to promote an album is an alien concept, slightly absurd, a Rock marketing concept. And sure, Rock musicians regularly moan and strain at the straight-jacket leash of the album-tour-album schedule, but at least such strategies ensure that potential purchasers get to hear the music. Cynically, you can call it exposure to an exploitable market. But with only a reconfiguring of terms it’s also an exercise in playing to a potential audience that deserves a chance to hear music of the Surman calibre. And on the recent ‘Miroslav Vitous Group’ album (1980 – ECM 1185) it’s John’s soprano that slams in with the most open and vigorous passages on the whole package, a solid slap in the mind reacting against his peers sometime inclination to decorous embroidery. His composition “Number Six” illuminates the set both technically and emotionally.

I suggest to him a possible analogy with the Funk-jazz success of the Morrissey Mullen band. “Do you know, I’ve never heard that band” he confesses. “I know that Dick’s playing great, but I don’t know Jim Mullen’s playing. I’ve not heard that band at all.”

Stonewalled I commence describing cross-over points. He snags. A variant of Fusion, but with a little more, um, integrity? “Ah. We play some stuff with Miroslav, when he plays Fender bass and Jon plays some straight eight rhythms that are nice.” But new ground? Naw. “It’s another version of the blues, and Folk music, and all of those things together. I only get bored by music that’s too static for me. I mean – I like music to MOVE, to be, like, plastic – where it can move very quickly from one form to another…”

Somewhere the stage-bell B-B-brangggs, and it’s time to quit for the gig’s second segment. I’m still searching for clues. Is fluidity a direction for the future?

“The future? I’ll play some more with Miroslav’s band, and I’ll maybe do some more solo work. I’ve umpteen things angling to be done at the moment.”

Real solo work? “Yes, I’ll play on my own, either with just orthodox instruments, or with electronics too if it’s a big budget production and they can afford to have a truck and somebody to bring it!”

The tape winds down to a close and I still don’t have my definitive answer to the state of the art. Perhaps it doesn’t exist anyway, and Surman came to that conclusion long back when he abdicated attempts to play all ‘of that clever shit other people play’? An early Surman title asked “How many clouds can you see?”, well there ain’t no clouds now, you can see the horizon, and the freeze-out is falling fast. Perhaps commercial ambition immatures with age, gets sidetracked into more interesting and musically rewarding detours?
I don’t know. I’d still like to know.

* ‘SUCH WINTERS OF MEMORY’ by JOHN SURMAN (1982 – ECM 1254)
www.johnsurman.com

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