The Wire

In Writing

John Surman

An unedited transcript of Julian Cowley's interview

[JS on the mid- & late 1960s]

We were in an interesting time period. Strangely enough the avant-garde of jazz was the most popular part of it. The Coltrane records were the jazz records that were selling the most. The adventurous stuff, searching and looking for everything that was really the place to be. The place that was creating the most excitement and the most interest. As a young player you wanted to be at the centre of the action. The other thing that strikes me looking back was that the idea of having an original voice was still key to listening to that music. If you listen to the great tenor players you can always tell Dexter Gordon from Benny Golson from Wayne Shorter. It was very important to find your own voice in those days; it\'s probably much harder to do that now.

The great movements in jazz have usually been centred around a few specific individuals like Monk or Mingus. You immediately recognised Monk\'s quartet not just because of his music but perhaps because of [saxophonist] Charlie Rouse and [bassist] Larry Gales. The way that they played time. You got to know Booker Irvin and Jimmy Knepper and they were also part of the recognizable Mingus sound in the same way that [Harry] Carney and [Johnny] Hodges were part of Ellington\'s. That signposts what jazz is about in a way - one or two people with a real vision gathering around themselves like-minded spirits and developing together. And I suppose we were still trying to do that with Chris McGregor and Mike Westbrook, Mike Gibbs and John Warren.

Mike Westbrook introduced me to playing what was then a mainstream type of jazz at Plymouth Arts Centre where he ran a workshop. Keith Rowe, who went on to be part of AMM, was part of that workshop. I was still at school, about 15. I\'d just bought a baritone saxophone and Keith Rowe was in the shop when I bought it. He found out where I lived and came round and said, We could use a baritone in the workshop. Westbrook was playing a trumpet and trying to write four-part horn arrangements and I became part of that.

Up to that point I\'d been playing clarinet in New Orleans-type bands. I listened to music a lot at Peter Russell\'s record store in Plymouth. He\'d imported all the records and was really interested in the music. He introduced me to all the great players and gave me a history course in jazz music. I\'m grateful for that to this day.

I got into music college in London at the same time that Westbrook came up and we re-started there. That\'s how I came to meet Mike Osborne. He was one of the very first guys to drift into the Westbrook clan. Then following that the others from [the group that recorded] Celebration. That was the beginning. It was that kind of networking thing that happens when you get to London. Tubby Hayes heard me playing with Westbrook and suggested me to [pianist] Eddie Harvey for Humphrey Lyttleton\'s Big Band. In Humph\'s band I met Kathy Stobart and people who were really on the scene.

We had real enthusiasm to play and to listen to everything we could get our hands on. Because there was no university of jazz in those times you had to find it. I was looking for anywhere to play all the time. If there was no jam session going on we would hire a downstairs room beneath a piano shop in the Portobello Road - it was awfulÉthe smell of leaking gas - but we played. I don\'t think we were striving to be something, but to find ourselves through the music.

We were aware of other developments in contemporary music - Cornelius Cardew and Cage. That music was out there; it was with us. All of those possibilities were in the air. In my circle it was driven from the gut rather than cerebral.

[On the album Local Colour]

I didn\'t know George [Khan]\'s playing until I went to Pete [Lemer]\'s house. George is astonishing; he sounds light years ahead of what I was getting up to. Pete had written some very ahead-of-the-time music. That was my first album. It came out on ESP in the States. We recorded it in London with Eddie Kramer.

John Stevens\'s venture at the Little Theatre Club coincided with [Ronnie Scott\'s] Old Place things to a certain extent. I was more wrapped up with Mike [Westbrook]\'s stuff but I went to several sessions at the Little Theatre Club. We played there with Pete Lemer. I\'m sure that\'s where I met him for the first time.

There was also the Marquee Club. Playing the blues with Alexis Korner was also pretty important to me. I wasn\'t a regular but I did it more and more toward the end of my stay in the UK. And Pete Brown\'s poetry thing.

I was Mr Available whenever possible. I just enjoyed the diversity, then as I do now.

Alexis Korner was my introduction to the history of blues. Charles Fox lived upstairs. It was fantastic to go there. You could listen to blues downstairs with Alexis and then go up to Charles who had floor to ceiling the entire history of jazz music on record. Rather than being a jazz critic he looked for the good things and brought them forward. You could trust him; if he said it was good you\'d just go out and get the record and 99 times out of 100 you\'d see why he had suggested it.

I never got on really with the clarinet as a jazz instrument. I started playing it in the New Orleans context and then having to study it at college all the time put the nail in the coffin, trying to play the Mozart clarinet concerto day in day out. The bass clarinet appealed because I could use technical knowledge I had in a way I could use. You have to internalise the sound. It\'s singing really,. It\'s a voice. You\'ve got to feel it inside to make that sound.

John Warren has always written music that has been elegant to play, as a musician. If I take one of his arrangements to a big band the guy who\'s playing the third trombone part will always say that\'s nice - there\'s always something for him to play. It\'s not just following the first trombone all the way and stock block writing and all the best bits given to the soloist. Technically he always writes interesting music for musicians to play and I have to say that I\'m now doing an octet workshop over here [in Norway] and John sent me six or seven absolutely terrific arrangements so the relationship with Warren is as up-to-date as you could possibly imagine. I\'ve always been in contact with John. I met him in a rehearsal band in the mid-60s and he was playing alto in Barnes. John was sitting next to me. He brought an arrangement called Raven\'s Dance and I really liked it. We ended up sharing a flat in Elgin Crescent with Malcolm Griffiths. He ran Monday evening workshops - a big band session at the Old Place. That\'s where I met Dave Holland.

Producer Peter Eden - before music got completely commercialised - a lot of young people were interested in jazz. Once Peter got onto me I was full of all these other people I liked to play with and you should listen to this and do that. He ended up doing Skidmore and Gibbs too.

I lived next to [pianist] Russ Henderson. He ran jam sessions on Sundays playing calypso jazz É which was great - another adventure, another rhythmic feeling. The executive producers [of his first album] wanted the calypso jazz because they felt that it was accessible and I was happy to do it because it was just as much a part of my music at that time as anything else was. But simultaneously I was very much involved with Dave Holland and Alan Jackson in the first trio. It wasn\'t like a trio with accompanying people because that wasn\'t the spirit of the music. If other people played with you they shared the glory, if you like. Or their voice was part and parcel of the music. They all solo. But really it was based around Dave, AJ and myself.

[On duets with drummers] You\'re completely free harmonically and melodically but you\'ve got that rhythmic thing - it\'s like North Indian music-making with the sitar and the tabla. It\'s a very liberating experience if you\'ve got all that drive.

You get the impression at this distance that it was all happening and we were playing all the time - yeah, playing all the time but mostly upstairs rooms in pubs for nothing and jam sessions. Making a living playing jazz was difficult. The answer was to do session work and radio broadcasts with big bands. I did a certain amount of that but I wasn\'t happy. I wanted to get on with doing the music and there wasn\'t really the opportunity to do that in England I was forced out into the world because I wanted to play all the time. I left England September 1969. Packed up and went to Belgium.

Westering Home was where I first realised the possibilities of overdubbing and composing on the fly, as it were. That and the arrival of the synthesizer - the first purchasable ones Moog and EMS in the mid-70s - that was a turning point. I was very interested in tone colours, different sounds - that\'s probably what attracted me. I\'ve always been crazy about different instruments . While I was doing a teaching diploma I did spend some time at the School of Oriental and African Studies learning the sitar with Nazir Jairazbhoy - I was really that interested. I learnt quite a bit about the structure of that music. He took the mystique out of it and taught the nuts and bolts. You sing it before you play it. I started as a boy soprano and it made sense to me too.

[On electronics]

Barre Philips came up with an offer at the Opera in Paris to do a big piece. Stu Martin and I came back [from the US] and I never went back to America after that. It was during the period at the Opera that it was possible to get all this electronic stuff together because it was a regular job for several years and I helped with all the electronics. No need to hump it around. Carolyn Carlson was the choreographer and artistic director of the Group de Recherche company there. She brought me into the thing and it mushroomed from there - from 1973 until 1979 I was on and off a part of that outfit, we would work there for four to five months of the year. We worked with synths a lot. It enabled me to explore things in a compositional way, particularly in the solo stuff, that I had not been able to explore before. Writing for strings was unheard of for someone like myself - a Ôjazzer\'. You still don\'t get much in the way of commissions to write film music or background music.

There came a point where I really started to discover what music was inside me rather than riding along with the carriage, as it were. Up to a certain point I\'d been going wherever the wind took me. With Westering Home there came a moment when I thought this stuff that doesn\'t sound particularly jazzy and which I\'ve always felt a bit ambivalent about - that\'s me. The thought came to me, Look mate you\'re going to have to live with this because this is who you actually are. You didn\'t grow up with Chicago blues. You get up and you see what comes out - it\'s all in there. When we were at school we sang songs from the National Songbook to an out-of-tune piano. I enjoyed singing so all of that would be inside you. Dad played the piano quite a lot of Beethoven, so I\'m familiar with the easier parts of the Beethoven sonatas. My first hair-standing-on-end musical experience was Bach\'s St Matthew\'s Passion in St AndrewÔs Church Plymouth with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. I didn\'t know what to do with myself I was so moved. All that\'s in there to begin with.

Then hearing jazz, when my voice broke and I stopped singing and hearing this improvised music that I could buy a second-hand clarinet and tootle along with and be a part of very quickly. Then I was making up my own bits and pieces É and the rest is history.

Multi-tracking had arrived at accessible price. You didn\'t have to pay a fortune; it wasn\'t just available at Abbey Road. Other guys had got 8-track machines É this little studio, Tangerine - a nice engineer Robin Sylvester. I just went in to see what would happen if I did it. Did about half of it and ran out of money and then eventually Peter Eden came round and said he thought he get me a contract with Island, so I got a bit more money, a bit more studio time and I finished it off.

[On looping]

I knew nothing whatsoever about Terry Riley. The reason the loop stuff comes abut is because there a small sequencer on this machine of 256 events which means 123 or 124 notes which would just repeat endlessly and that\'s how it came about. It was nothing to do with looking for another technique - that\'s what it did. It could create these patterns and a little later they developed it so you could transpose the pattern as you played. It was born of the instrument itself. After I\'d done Upon Reflection I read about Terry Riley and Steve Reich doing these things and I checked it out. To me it\'s not the same. I don\'t hear it the same, much as I enjoy some of that music.

[On The Trio]

I think what worked well about The Trio was that we were very different people, very different backgrounds, each strong in their own way. It was vive la difference that made that trio really happen. Stu was a very volatile personality. Barre was much more grounded in a Californian way. Stu was really up and down. A very demanding guy; he could be a bit heavy, a New Yorker and a tough cookie - me being a laid back West Country lad. We were chalk and cheese in many ways. It was turbulent but we had a lot of fun. Three blokes living and working together at a very intense level - there were sparks and it happened and that was it, it was over. We revived it, got together with Albert [Mangelsdorff] - the MUMPS phase - which led to some great music but by then it was different - times were changing. The mid-70s was a very dead period for jazz music - the commercial stuff had really taken over by then. It was harder to work then.

I learnt a lot from Albert. He and Kenny Wheeler were two very strong influences on my playing. They didn\'t play other people\'s jazz phrases. They had another voice, another way of speaking. A unique way of speaking or singing.

[Where Fortune Smiles]

Stu and I went to a rehearsal of Tony Williams\' Lifetime and John [McLaughlin] said I know this guy who has got a studio in an apartment building. Let\'s do something. Dave [Holland] and Karl [Berger] were on hand so we just went and did that. And half way through there was a lot of banging on the door and voices shouting, Stop that noise. That\'s why there are a couple of duets on there. We were all thrashing away.

[On Kain Krog]

We worked together at Expo 70 in Osaka with the Downbeat Pollwinners band. I wrote something for her and she asked me for other stuff. Then I met her on tour with the Trio. Stu said why don\'t you two do a record - Karin had been carrying around ring modulator and echo devices, she was into doing electronic treatments on the voice. That turned out to be Cloudline Blue (1978) which took years because it was so expensive and we didn\'t have any money. I wrote stuff for her with strings and she brought me over here to work with the Norwegian Radio big band.

[Current activities]

I\'m still interested in the Coruscating band - the strings with bassist Chris Laurence - so I recorded a new album with them which will come out next year. There\'s also a collaboration with Howard Moody, the guy who conducts Proverbs and Songs. I\'ve spent some years as composer in residence with the Sarum Chamber Orchestra, a professional orchestra which he directs, based in Salisbury I wrote a piano concerto for him and various other things. I\'ve made a duet record with him on organ here in Oslo. We\'ll try and do some gigs in churches. He\'s an improviser, not jazz. There\'s a new Dowland project. The thing with Jack de Johnette is ongoing. And the quartet playing in Birmingham - should be a cracker - we haven\'t played together for two years.

Leave a comment

Pseudonyms welcome.

Used to link to you.