A Portrait Attempt About A Curious
English Gentleman: John Surman

A Portrait Attempt About A Curious English Gentleman: John Surman


Text: Sami Kısaoğlu
Illustration: Saydan Akşit

With a general definition, the idea of European jazz as European musicians taking the fundamental elements of the genre and building upon it with their own cultural background, personal experiences and the musical history of the old continent from the middle ages to the 20th Century; has reached our day from 60’s with numberless variations. Towards the end of 60’s, European jazz scene was going through a renaissance like no other and those years took their place in history as the period of many first recordings from tens of musicians, whose names are well known and respected today. By the third quarter of the 20th Century; Arild Andersen, John Taylor, Tomasz Stanko, Jon Balke, Terje Rypdal, Bobo Stenson, Enrico Rava, Jon Christensen, Eberhard Weber, Jan Garbarek and many others have claimed success and recognition. Another name who has gained an important seat in European jazz scene is English multi-instrumentalist John Surman. Since his first recording in 1968 named Vocalion (Dream Records), Surman has knocked down half a century in his career as one of the most productive names in European jazz scene. Pursuing different questions, sounds and colors in each of his albums, John Surman has inspired us to take a retrospective look at his career, as we celebrate the 50th year of the first album of this precious artist’s discography.


Much like his Norwegian colleague Jan Garbarek, In the beginnings John Surman was also influenced by John Coltrane and the American jazz, yet in short time he was able to find his own voice. He stated in one of his interviews, “my ears were focused on what Mingues, Shepp, Ornette, Rollins and Coltrane were doing”... In the following years, however, he explored the musical topography and history of the old continent forwards and backwards, discovering various musical genres. In the 1970’s and 80’s Surman’s musical development was multi-dimensional and multi-layered. While I will dissect the details of this development in the upcoming paragraphs, the foundation of it were Surman’s interest in Britannia and Scandinavian folk music. The English church music written between the middle ages and renaissance as well as the new accord sequences of minimal music were also two other interest points that has influenced the formation of Surman’s musical language.

In his famous Jazz Book, which sold millions of copies worldwide, German jazz critic Joachim E. Berendt says this about John Surman: “There were only two baritone players who tended towards free style and are known worldwide: Pat Patrick from Sun Ra Arkestra and British John Surman from Europe. Surman was also referenced as ‘the most important baritone player of new jazz’ by Japanese critics. Even though Surman was focusing on soprano saxophone in the 70’s, he shifted his focus back to baritone in the 80’s.With its exuberant glissando and dazzling sound, he pushed the assumed narrow tonal boundaries of baritone saxophone to the high pitched territories of tenor playing style and then more. His sound was sharp and cold in high pitch and soft, warm and full in low pitches.”

When we look back at the last 40 years, we can see that Surman is one of the most brave baritone saxophone players of jazz history. Now in his 70’s, this English gentleman has literally breathed life into the roaring sound of the baritone through his music and pushed the limits of this instrument’s capabilities in solo performances. Not only Surman has expanded the sound scale of baritone sax, he also embarked upon new adventures in every album, moving beyond in every step of his career.

Early Periods and first flirt with ECM

From his first recording with ECM in 1979 to today, Surman has managed to create different musical colors and without a doubt is one of the musicians who has the most recordings in the ECM catalogue. If we were to rewind back to the beginnings of his career, we can see that John Surman started to make a name for himself in the ensemble called The Trio. Soon after, Surman moved on to founding one of the earliest saxophone ensembles, S.O.S, and worked with European names like Ronnie Scott, John McLaughin and Albert Mangelsdorff. In 1976 Surman started off his thirty plus years of collaboration with ECM by joining the American contrabass player Barre Phillips, a fellow member of The Trio, in his record Mountainscapes. His first recording from ECM, carrying his own name, came out 1979. Titled Upon Reflection, this recording emphasized Surman’s multi-instrumentalist side, as he played bass clarinet and synthesizer alongside saxophones. The album had simple and elegant tunes from English folklore and Surman created minimalist synth accord loops to support the harmonic and melodic structures of his music. Performing layered tracks of various wind instruments in his “"Prelude and Rustic Dance", Surman also introduced his use of overlapping recording technique which he continuously worked into his solo albums. Starting off with Upon Reflection, Surman continued his solo recordings with Withholding Pattern (1984), Private City (1987), Road To Saint Ives (1990). Among them, Private City has been especially influential in Surman’s name becoming more famous in jazz circles. Another album that Surman recorded as a one man orchestra was Road to Saint Ives (1990), which carried a deep influence of Surman’s interest in church music and English folklore. A later solo record from 2013, Saltash Bell, has received “best album” award from one of the most important radio stations of the genre, Jazz FM. Creating an inventive sound cosmos around English and Nordic folklore tunes that inspire him, Surman plays all the instruments in the album, which was founded on the music Surman composed for Norwegian photographer and director Odd Geir Saether’s film.

Most recently Surman released Invisible Threads (2018) from ECM, a recording that sees him back to the trio format after a long time, with American vibraphonist Rob Waring and Brazilian pianist Nelson Ayres accompanying Surman.

Musical collaborations: Karin Krog, Jack DeJohnette, ...

Of course John Surman’s work as a recording and stage musician with various artists, as well as his musical collaborations and the albums that were born out from those collaborations deserve separate articles for each. As Surman grew his appetite for and expanded on his early interests and inspirations, he also participated in many album and stage performances of many musicians in the ECM catalogue. Surman joined John Potter’s - the ex-tenor of Hilliard Ensemble - John Dowland projects with his soprano saxophone and bass clarinet wile also creating an album like Thimar (1997) with Tunisian oud player Anouar Brahem and Dave Holland. While Surman’s interest in Scandinavian folklore rooted him in this land, it also created possibilities for new musical collaborations. Known also for her work with Archie Shepp from across the ocean, the legendary voice of Norway, Karin Krog is another name John Surman worked with as a duo on Nordic folklore tunes. Surman & Krog duo started off with Such Winters of Memory (1982), and with the inclusion of Terje Rpydal, continued with Nordic Quartet (1994) album. In the following years Surman took his music relationship with Karin Krog to an emotional level and the two got married, with Surman living in Oslo since.

Jack DeJohnette has a different place in Surman’s career. Deemed as the “father” of postmodern style in drums, the first time Jack DeJohnette shared the recording room with Surman was for The Amazing Adventures of Simon Simon in 1981, but the friendship between these two names was actually much older. The duo met in 1968 during a jam session at the Ronnie Scott’s Club while DeJohnette was playing in Bill Evan’s trio. Their friendship continued in New York when Surman moved there for a while in 1974. Giving joined classes at Karl Berger’s Creative Music Studio, Jack DeJohnette and John Surman went in recording again in Invisible Nature (2000) and Free and Equal (2001) albums. Surman’s latest recording with DeJohnette, who started his music career as a pianist and has records with his first instrument, was Brewster’s Rooster album (2008) together with John Abercrombie and Drew Gross. While Surman has worked with many valuable jazz musicians like John Taylor, Tony Oxley, Kenny Wheeler, Elvin Jones, Paul Bley, Bill Frisell, Miroslav Vitous, Gil Evans, Tomasz Stańko, Paul Motian starting in 80’s and over the following decade, he also produced music for the stage arts. Alongside his collaborations with American dancer and chareographer Carolyn Carlsom, Surman also composed music for various European dance collectives. One of his most famous pieces was “Private City”, a work he created for Sadlers Wells Royal Ballet. The album which got out from ECM with the same name is also one of his most interesting and praised records.

Somewhere between classic music and jazz

One of the ideas that Surman pursued in his late career has been the work that joined the strings with improvised music. In 2000 Surman joined with Chris Laurence on the bass and the string quartet Trans4mation to record the album, Coruscating. This team came back together in 2007 to record The Spaces in Between. All the compositions in the latter belongs to Surman and even though the album might come across as a string dominated work, Surman’s interest in Scandinavian folklore is felt on every note in a subtle tone. On several pieces, Surman employs almost classical period accord structures and sentences for the strings, while his use of baritone and soprano saxophones are way beyond the classical order...

On a last note

Jazz, by its nature, has been a multi-directional and multifocal musical genre, especially since the second half of 20th Century. In this multi-directionality, very rarely a musician comes by like John Surman to have such an imagination and bring together such a variety of different sounds to make part of his music. This is, without a doubt, one of the major qualities that make John Surman unique.

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