The Book Cooks
Excerpts from
John Surman: The Belting Zodiac

by Mike Pearson
(Soundworld; Rayleigh, Essex, UK)


John Surman                                                                                                       Courtesy of Soundworld

“I really don’t know what makes a good composer, I mean, there are composers and there are composers aren’t there. I think I’d call Vaughan Williams or Bach or Bartok a composer – people who can write a sustained piece of music for forty minutes. I know there are people who write in miniature but I’m making a point here – it’s one thing to write a twelve bar blues but it’s another thing to come up with a symphony. I think I’ve learned, slowly, how to compose. I learned through all the solo albums a little bit about development and making things interesting. It’s always a struggle but once you get started on a piece it’s always possible that the piece takes over.”

The solo recordings, which began with Westering Home and really became a strong suit for Surman from Upon Reflection onwards, clarify some of these points and underscore the creative possibilities of this recording studio. Describing the process to John Fordham he likened it to another kind of arrangement. “Over the course of making those solo records I did make the discovery that when you work alone it kind of becomes like the work of a painter where you create the entire landscape, then it becomes practical composition. Composing without putting it on paper first.” But, as he explained it to me “the hardest part is putting the first note down – I always said when I lived in Kent that the house would never be cleaner, tidier – all the washing up done – than if I was about to write something. I would do anything rather than sit down and start – clean the fire place. I would even clean the oven but once you get into the process then the juices start to flow and with any luck then you’ll have a piece that has a life of it’s own. Then it gets interesting then you get somewhere. You have to do enough till it gets to that point.” It could be that the domestic distraction is a part of the mysterious process whereby an artist knows intuitively how to create the right conditions to let what’s there at the back of their heads, as Martin Amis puts it, come through and out into the world. Beryl Bainbridge talked about giving the kitchen cupboards a good seeing to before she could sit down to write so there is clearly something in it. One can even imagine Miles Davis getting those stubborn stains out the rug before mapping out Bitches Brew. Perhaps it’s also to do with keeping part of yourself grounded. “Once you’ve finished there is a sense of loss – it’s all gone, there is an emptiness. If you can you have to start something else straight away, keep that thing going. That’s not so easy either.”

The first solo project for ECM produced what almost became a signature effect; ruminative dance lines unwinding without limit behind quite exposed improvisations on all his reed instruments, chiming pulses and subsidiary sounds drifting in and out of the acoustic fabric like an automated version of the alchemy Gil Evans could produce from human sources. The arrangements start and stop but the records often give off an indeterminate feeling of how time passes musically. It seems determined yet arbitrary, orphaned from the usual guidelines. The arrangements have an atomized quality, Surman appears to build coherent solos from compact rhythmic or melodic cells and the pieces work themselves out down unexpected pathways but they are all of a piece and however the music ends it seems to have come quite logically from the place where it started. Upon Reflection as a title gives a hint at what you might hear with some of the tracks and implies some of the criticisms commentators have labored with regarding ECM records and some of the Englishman’s projects with Manfred Eicher. Accusations of “ambient” or “new age muzak” have been made at the label and by implication some of Surman’s work. In a review of a Paul Bley disc on ECM featuring Surman, Richard Cook and Brian Morton have referred to the baritone stylist “still having much to offer at the sharper end of the music.” Implying that he has not always been there though it should be said that they give his own ECM output a fair wind. In an interview with Eicher, Richard Cook raised some of the points made as criticism of “the ECM sound.” Mention new age music to Eicher and he looks disgusted: “I don’t know anything about it. I don’t listen to it, don’t know what it is. It’s just another stamp on music.” Cook continues “as far as this listener is concerned, if it weren’t for Manfred Eicher’s ECM, we wouldn’t have had such masterpieces as Jan Gaberek’s Dis, Eberhard Weber’s Yellow Fields, Ralph Towner’s Solstice, John Abercrombie’s Timeless, John Surman’s Witholding Pattern or Edward Vesala’s Lumi. It’s, well, as simple as that.” Elsewhere in the feature Eicher defines an aim “to capture what is going on in the music” and “by withdrawing, we are much more likely to achieve clarity than by always being in the middle of things.” Again, it could be easy to scoff and yoke together some jeers about alternative types and sixties sloppiness except that ECM has been a brilliant success commercially making available serious music in a world where this gets harder and harder. Eicher also aims to keep the records permanently available and works very hard for his musicians. The connection with John Surman has been a good thing for both of them. Eicher chooses who to promote very carefully. “I have to be touched in some way. Something has to ring... an aesthetical quality close to our ideas. There’s no criteria, but in some way it has to feel that there is something there that we can develop. I don’t want someone who’s just on the market or famous or hip, or whatever. There’s too much of that going on. We’d like to still do what we feel is part of what we think and what we do. It can’t be defined. It could be anybody who presents a project which has substance. We have no ideology and no strategies and we have no observer of the market, to look around and see what’s going on. It comes and goes and comes and goes. I’ve been working with Jan Garbarek for twenty years, and if you realize the changes in the results one can see it was the right thing to do.” Eicher’s commitment to Surman, which goes back to his interest in The Trio and the music Barre Phillips made for the company, gave the green light to him and it’s worth getting some idea of the producers own position in the scheme of things. “Mostly nothing is prepared. I listen – sometimes I even listen to tapes, before we go into the studio. That’s the place to work. In improvised music, if people come together for the first time, you become part of the group if you’re a good producer. Sometimes not much support is needed – then music starts to fly. What we finally have is the musical documentation of everyone’s input, including the engineer of course, if you have a guy with sensitive ears like Jan Erik Kongshaug.”

Upon Reflection draws quite a lot on the earlier work for Carolyn Carlson in Paris. “The music on Upon Reflection, was very much influenced by the work I did with dance, especially where the synths were concerned. I learned a lot about composition and performance on a very big stage, The Paris Opera House. A lot of people there, big shows. So I learned what it was to perform in front of a great number of people. I learned about the professionalism of performance, about consistency – just being on the case. I learned a lot from watching, and that’s very important to me, I’ve kept that. You’ll see it coming out a lot in Private City. That’s based on music I did for Suzy Crow at Sadlers Wells Theatre. Later on I did something with Jenny Jackson and John Taylor which led to some of the string music on Coruscating.” The record was released in 1979 so some of these experiences would have been fresh as were the discoveries made with SOS and the earlier solo project. “They tie in together at the beginning of the period where I’m beginning to break away from making music with bass and drums – whether it’s me multi-tracking or playing with one or two horns. You don’t have to have a rhythm section, you can find other ways of swinging along and making music. Skid and Ozzy were natural people to do it with because we had a lot of fun and understood one another and could make an interesting evenings music when we could program in the drums and keyboards. I quite like going in different directions and it starts to show at this point. We could sound together – the tone quality, the level, the kinds of sounds we made. We fooled around with Bach three part inventions because they were so good to play.”

The bold manner in which Surman deployed fixed rhythms on his solo recordings was reminiscent of Mike Westbrook’s use of hard edged rock pulses in Citadel Room 315. One writer referred to these “stuck patterns” and asked him about them. “This really motivates me in a way that other things don’t. It’s something about the sun rises in the morning and sets at night and no matter how many times you weed the garden that stuff grows again. There’s something relentless about it – it’s like life itself, it’s just going to go on and on and you can float with it, hedge against it. Even though it goes absolutely nowhere harmonically there is something in the patterns which is fascinating.” The multiple lines set him different tasks where space and incident are held in a delicate balance. Bringing this off requires great skill. “Do I hear what I’m going to play in my head? Well, maybe, but do I hear what I’m going to say before I open my mouth? Well I hope so but you’re not always sure, you do try. Some of the best moments as an improviser are when you don’t even know what you’re playing. It’s just playing itself, you’re in it and you can’t describe it and you don’t know how but it’s amazing that you got there.” John described a similar process to Graham Lock in relation to an especially open ended situation with one of the music’s great improvisers following “that long and wonderful tour” with Paul Bley in 1986. This quartet with Paul Motian and Bill Frisell went into the studio to cut The Paul Bley Group for ECM “which for me is still one of the most astonishing things I’ve done, because that entire album is totally improvised and with hardly any edits, – except for when I dropped my saxophone.” On a later Bley group recording – Adventure Playground – a feeling of discovery was apparent with some of the compositions. “We did Paul’s ‘Pig Foot’ – I mean I’d never played that before, as is probably self-evident. I don’t even know the tune. Paul said ‘Oh that’s okay – I’ll play it then you just answer me.’ So that’s what we did. There are other times when you’re thinking it’s terrible, I’m gonna have to do something technical, maybe I should propose that we hang in this little technical area, or, if you’re lucky the people you’re playing with hit on something and ... oh, yeah.”

Making recordings of yourself improvising within arranged frames presents an adventurous musician like Surman with a number of tests. One of his contemporaries, the American Dave Liebman, has written at length about some of them. “For the improviser, composition and recording hold a unique position. The challenge is that the improviser is in a way freezing what might be another improvisation. The whole notion of spontaneity is undermined because now the improviser must plan and formulate his music methodically without many of the precarious conditions which exist in the act of improvisation.” Liebman goes on to point out that as a composition serves as a framework for solos there is a clear advantage to creating your own musical settings, the more so when you are effectively playing with your own lines. “The other advantage in composing is that it slows down the musical decision making process which during the act of improvisation is by definition spontaneous and therefore quite rapid. This retardation of what are usually split-second musical choices concerning the elements of harmony, rhythm and melody, helps to refine the improvisers mind. The overall result should be evidenced in more clarity while actually improvising.” These points are germane to the solo Surman projects as the element of chance he referred to which is always an element of playing with other, separate musical imaginations, takes on a different aspect. Composition and improvisation become very blurred. Here’s Liebman again. “In jazz composition form becomes crucial because it will not only apply to the written material, but it helps to guide the improvisations as well ... form is an area where constant juggling and change is found ... the composer/improviser as a single artist has a great advantage in this particular area. Just as in improvisation, the color of a composition is the overall mood resulting from the other elements combined. In the end the color of a piece and its improvisations have to fulfill two goals: it should accomplish the composer’s musical and aesthetic desires, and the listener should be able to feel something akin to what was intended.”

In this way some elements of improvisation configure the listeners’ response as they allow themselves to be persuaded along imaginative paths they might not otherwise experience as, returning to Surman’s analogy with the work of a painter, we look at something new and let our imaginations associate freely. It becomes a journey into the spaces between what we think we know and what is mysterious. It seems to be like this for the musicians too as Surman comments. “Once the music starts happening, then you’re just in the music, it takes over. I suppose I am aware of form in a sense because it’s important to offer a listener some sense of where you are in a piece but as an improviser you don’t always know, or where it’s going to go really. Playing solo is quite scary at times and that’s where the audience is important because it’s a conversation between you and them. It’s a pretty one-sided conversation I know but you can get feedback, you sense involvement, you sense if you’ve gone too far with something or you sense their engagement or you know you’re on the right lines. So I’m more aware there, there’s none else to be aware of really and there’s nothing more boring than listening to yourself play. So it’s a question of am I getting something across? Or, am I on my own and the people were wishing they were at home watching football on the box?”

I was able to hear him recently at a quite intimate gig as part of Nottingham’s enterprising “Jazz Steps” program in a duo with John Taylor at The Bonnington Theatre in Arnold. They had let me take some pictures at the sound check where it emerged that Surman hadn’t been well but driven up to make the engagement. As I chatted later to the promoter Dave Groom he told me that the saxophonist had actually been quite poorly with an intestinal complaint. None of this would have been evident to the staff or jazz scribes enjoying the sound check where the duo tested out the room with a sizeable chunk of “On Green Dolphin Street” taking them to within an hour of the start when they could slope off to do whatever improvisers do before the gig. At such times it can be hard to envy the itinerant life of a professional jazz musician; travelling and waiting then having to move quickly to wait some more. The slow drip worry of where the next gig might come from. The daft questions people ask you. The eventual gig was a success by any standards; fine music, a full house, no noticeable interest in the football scores. Surman’s winning way with the punters and Taylor’s charm betraying no signs of indigestion or travel weariness. All very professional and drawing on skills honed by both men through many years in the band business where the chanciness of a life in music needs to be tackled with canny resourcefulness. Talking about a well realized arrangement of one of his tunes Surman said “If only I could live my life in such a structured way – that I knew where things were leading and what their purpose was. But I really don’t.”

Being able to improvise with your life is another skill and from his point of departure from Britain in 1969 John Surman has had to find ways to adapt to the juggling and change Dave Liebman refers to in a musical context. It’s necessary to backtrack a bit here to get a panoramic view of his activities during the first decade of his involvement with ECM records and get some idea of how his past and present began to come together. This returns us to America in 1980 when he began his long association with Miroslav Vitous in the bassist’s quartet with Kenny Kirkland and Jon Christiansen. “Working in America is quite a special business – you can’t just show up and play. With Miroslav Vitous we had played a few gigs in Canada then we slipped into the USA, I’m sure we did it illegally because I remember hiding the baritone under the aircraft seat with Jon Christiansen. I remember the air hostess spotting us but there was so much going on and Jon and I had covered it with newspapers so she couldn’t see it. Anyway Kenny Kirkland had gone ahead to New York and we met up there to play a concert at The Public Theatre. Then about a year later I went back officially and we played at The Cellar Door in Washington, a club in Philadelphia and we played at Seventh Avenue South which was a club which had been opened by the Brecker brothers. I had a work permit and everything. Much later I went in with Jack (DeJohnette) and he got a permit for me – cost him a thousand dollars and a lot of hassle but he finally got me in.”

At this point in his career as the decade began Surman was moving forward without any real plan, improvising, making something happen out of what came his way. Pretty much like his approach to playing. “I think I’m a melodic player really. I don’t have any particularly sophisticated harmonic or rhythmic ideas – what I’ve got to offer are a few of those melodies which I twist and turn round on.” What did come his way were a series of creative relationships which helped him gyrate to remarkable effect. The connection with Manfred Eicher became crucial at this point, and it may have been at Eicher's suggestion that Surman became part of Vitous’ group. Here the emphasis was very much on exploration and “burning” in a fine quartet made up by an Afro-American, an Englishman, a Norse and a man without a country. For the next decade Eicher would be very much part of the story, encouraging ideas others may have shied away from and promoting ECM’s artists internationally. “In three days I recorded ‘Upon Reflection’ – two days recording and one mixing – and for the next three days at Rainbow Studios in Oslo we recorded the first album with the Miroslav Vitous group. So for the eighties you can see that I’m not so much based round The Paris Opera and doing odd things here and there. Now I’m really out there.”

Paul Dunmall - FMR Records

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