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John Surman
Flashpoint: NDR Jazz Workshop – April ’69
Cuneiform Records Rune 315/316

Cuneiform Records casts once more into the well-stocked stream of German radio and television jazz broadcasts, from which they previously fished out exemplary Brotherhood of Breath releases, and reels in another impressive catch. This time, they’ve landed a superior session by John Surman and a ten-piece big band. It’s an exhilarating date of Coltrane-influenced, modal-based free jazz that been cross-fertilized with other influences and stamped by Surman’s own unique voice. The Coltrane influence is obvious in the way Surman scales mighty vertical precipices in his solos. However, lovely English meadows are tucked among these crags of notes thrusting upwards and plunging earthward; the folk music-rooted lyricism of these passages based clearly in Surman’s heritage. He has a vocal, sometimes vulnerable tone, even on the mighty baritone, so this songlike lyricism is implicit in his sound, not a contrivance, but an organic part of it.

This 1969 recording comes from a critical time in both British jazz and Surman’s career. In the late '60s, American free jazz, British free improvisation, jazz-rock, and South African jazz were all being thrown into the melting pot of the London music scene. Surman was just establishing himself in that scene and made it his business to find out what all of them had to offer him. His early association with Mike Westbrook’s orchestral projects produced one of the composer’s early triumphs, Marching Song (Deram) in 1969. That same year, Surman appeared on Chris McGregor’s Up to Earth (Fledg’ling), an explosive South African-free jazz fusion session that augmented McGregor’s South African crew with Surman and Evan Parker. His jazz-rock forays with John McLaughlin lead to the guitarist’s 1969 masterpiece, Extrapolation (Polydor). Cuneiform has also released a 1969 session that’s a good example of Surman’s own take on jazz-rock, Way Back When. If his interests were wide, his voice always remained distinctive and instantly identifiable. It was the dialog between genre and individual sound – the feedback between what Surman brought to it and what the new context had to offer – that helped generate the excitement and sense of exploration in his music.

Flashpoint, then, comes from an insanely productive year in Surman’s career, and it shows in the music’s vibrancy and energy. On the opening “Mayflower,” Surman’s debt to Coltrane and the important, if not giant steps Surman was taking away from him are equally evident. He worries over two or three note phrases, building up the pressure until they burst into lines that uncurl to great lengths, or climax in cathartic shrieks and cries. But he’s also far more attentive to melody, to shaping phrases into less highly contoured shapes that flow in a more lyrical almost songlike way, and not into mountainous vertical harmonic constructions. His “Gratuliere” solo follows a slowly ascending chromatic path, embellished with trills and relieved by long, silky bolts of soprano lines. The more muscular baritone provides power on the free energy “Flashpoint,” where his bruising sound and deep growls are a strong presence in the collective improvisation that introduces the composition. He hovers in the altissimo register, rends the air with thunderbolt low notes, and swoops bird-like through curving flights, perches for a moment on a note or in silence, then hops from note to note as he positions himself for another take off.

Surman’s band includes many of his mates from groups he’d been working with including trombonist Malcolm Griffiths, saxophonists Alan Skidmore, Ronnie Scott, and Mike Osborne, trumpeter Kenny Wheeler, bassist Harry Miller, and the tragically overlooked drummer Alan Jackson. The NDR workshop format called for German musicians to join the featured artist, so pianist Fritz Pauer and trombonist Erich Kleinschuster are in the band as well.

Each makes valuable contributions to what is essentially a soloists’ big band. Wheeler is characteristically eloquent on his “Once Upon a Time” solo. He blankets the rhythm section with his warm sound but keeps everyone on their toes with his keen intellect. Flowing strings of notes bump up against blockier, terse phrases. His fast lines have a pinched, anxious quality that he undercuts with his deliberate use of gorgeous consonant phrases, his brilliant tone and choice of notes conspiring to heighten the beauty of his playing. Griffiths scrambles every which way on Kleinschuster’s “Puzzle,” flinging out ironic bouncing riffs, jolting blasts, grand smears of sound in a blur of energy and action. “Flashpoint,” the most free and urgent of Surman’s compositions in this set, is the perfect context for Osborne, who delivers (as he almost always did) a scorching solo, with ideas crowding in on one another as he hurries to bring them to life.

Some of the freshest and most imaginative playing comes from Miller and Jackson. Miller is so engaged when he plays, supporting the music with unexpected twists of phrases and a hard wood tone. Jackson is just incredibly responsive and detailed in his playing (this is especially evident on the video), powerful and energetic, but subtle and thoughtful as well. Why isn’t he more highly regarded?

The two-disc set includes a DVD of the full television broadcast in addition to the CD of the just the music. There’s no additional music, but the video is exceptionally clear and well produced, using more than one camera, and the visuals are rich in details that audio alone can’t reveal. It’s somewhat shocking to hear the intensity of Osborne’s solo issuing from such a fresh-faced, almost cherubic, young man. Miller’s hooded, sleepy eyes betray his concentration and intelligence. And there’s entertaining period detail like the groovy ’60s neck ware – Pauer’s beads, Griffiths’ kerchief and turtle neck shirt, Wheeler’s narrow tie. There are also more substantial things to be gained from watching the video, like how hard Miller plucks to get that huge sound of his. The open rehearsal set up of the session, with Surman and the band discussing aspects of the tunes, has its informative moments, but also feels a touch contrived.

Once the music starts, however, there’s nothing contrived about it. This was a committed, creative little big band, helping to establish a distinctively British style of jazz, and playing with all the power and enthusiasm it could muster. An important addition to Surman’s already impressive catalog.
–Ed Hazell

ECM Records

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