On stage the velvet-clothed table was illuminated in one discreet shaft of light, burnishing the instruments arrayed there: soprano and baritone saxophones, an alto clarinet and a recorder. They lay waiting for the deft fingers and mighty breath of a master European jazzman who would conjure from them music of haunting beauty, his melodies memories of ancient haunts and West Country landscapes.
We were waiting for John Surman to make his appearance on stage at Manchester’s Royal Northern College of Music for one of only two solo performances in England this summer, as part of the Manchester Jazz Festival. A solo concert by Surman is a rare and unique event showcasing the special blend of acoustic and electronic music featured on recordings such as The Road To Saint Ives, A Biography of the Reverend Absalom Dawe, and his most recent, this summer’s Saltash Bells. On these albums, mesmerizing rhythmic patterns are set up as a landscape over which Surman’s improvisations gradually unfold: haunting melodies on lyrical soprano sax; earthy, rugged baritone sax or melancholy bass clarinet.
Welcomed on stage as ‘all-round good bloke’ and ‘the smallest band in the festival’, the genial and affable Surman began by recalling that a friend had once asked him, ‘isn’t it lonely, out there on stage alone?’ Surman’s response was, ‘I do my utmost to make sure the audience loves me, as soon as possible’. He certainly faced no difficulty on that score.
John began by picking up the recorder – the same one he played at school, he said – and proceeded to regale us with a display of astonishing virtuosity, extracting trills and folk melodies from the instrument as if it were a Japanese shakuhachi. He followed that with ‘On Staddon Heights’, a piece from from Saltash Bells on which a fluting folk melody played on alto sax is underscored by electronic bird-song twitterings. It was, Surman explained, inspired by the memory of sitting on the Heights which overlook Plymouth sound.
By now the electronics were in evidence – digital delays and loops mysteriously and almost invisibly commanded by Surman out of thin air, like some Ariel to his Prospero. The old analogue synthesisers are digital now, and without their physical presence on stage, it is incredibly difficult to perceive how the electronic drones, ripples and shimmers that Surman conjures forth actually originate. His fingers flutter over they keys of a wind instrument, and occasionally he leans across to the table to press a button: that’s all.
Next, Surman introduced an instrument looking like an elongated silver saxophone: the alto clarinet. Later he switched to the baritone saxophone for ‘Aelfwin’, also from the new album and, John explained, named after a Saxon soldier killed in the Viking invasion of 991 that paved the way for the permanent occupation of England by the Danes. Now settled in Norway, John said the composition perhaps sprang from the similarity to his struggles with the Norwegian tax authorities.
A highlight was a version of ‘Countless Journeys’ from A Biography of the Reverend Absalom Dawe, which John announced he had never played live before. The track, with its looping electronic signature, really does evoke the sense of walking rolling hills with distant views.
Surman’s instrumental mastery – his warmth of tone and melodic sense – was revealed through gently unfolding folk-tinged lines on soprano sax or alto clarinet, sometimes contrasted by sonorous blues on baritone sax, all garnished with intricately textured electronic loops.
Throughout the 90 minute set, Surman was amiable and conversational, taking time to explain and put pieces into context. This was evidenced most clearly when he introduced ‘Not Love Perhaps’ from Private City, the solo album from 1987 that included music originally written for a ballet of the same name, premiered at Sadler’s Wells. John began by reading the poem from which the tune took its genesis, written by AJ Tessimond, a long-overlooked English poet who was born in Birkenhead in 1902. He attended Birkenhead School until the age of 14, before being sent to Charterhouse School, but ran away at age 16. In the 1920s he attended the University of Liverpool, where he read English Literature, and later moved to London where he worked in bookshops, and as a copywriter. Tessimond suffered from bipolar disorder, and received electro-convulsive therapy. He died in 1962.
This is not Love, perhaps,
Love that lays down its life,
that many waters cannot quench,
nor the floods drown,
But something written in lighter ink,
said in a lower tone, something, perhaps, especially our own.
A need, at times, to be together and talk,
And then the finding we can walk
More firmly through dark narrow places,
And meet more easily nightmare faces;
A need to reach out, sometimes, hand to hand,
And then find Earth less like an alien land;
A need for alliance to defeat
The whisperers at the corner of the street.
A need for inns on roads, islands in seas,
Halts for discoveries to be shared,
Maps checked, notes compared;
A need, at times, of each for each,
Direct as the need of throat and tongue for speech.
It must have been a long and exhausting set for Surman, playing for 90 minutes without a break. But he did return for a spirited encore, a blend of a Scottish pipe tune, then a Northumbrian dance and finally an Irish jig, asking the audience to provide the supporting drone.
This was another memorable concert hosted by the RNCM, one that showcased the talents of a remarkable musician. As the RNCM’s programme note states:
John’s music transcends familiar boundaries. Although a deep love of the jazz tradition runs throughout his work (Ellington is a particular enthusiasm), he is equally affected – as a one-time choirboy – by the melodic qualities of choral music and by English folk music. Much of his work is powerfully resonant of the landscape and tradition of his native southwest England. ‘If I look back to what turned me on about music, it is what l heard before I ever came across jazz’. The surprise and the enduring pleasure of Surman’s art ‘ lies in a uniquely personal vision, fired by the contrasts of exquisite lyricism, richly textured sound, and intense, full-bodied improvisation.
For me, this was a concert I had to attend as I love Surman’s solo albums more than any of his other work. They are few and far between – until Saltash Bells, it had been 15 years since the last of them. It is a unique body of work that echoes the achievements of Nordic jazz musicians like Jan Garbarek and Trygve Seim by its integration of indigenous folk melodies and sense of the landscape of his native West Country. This is truly atmospheric music which, on albums like The Road to St. Ives (1990) and A Biography of the Reverend Absalom Dawe (1994) is grounded in the England of Surman’s roots. The Rev. Absalom Dawe may sound like a character from a Thomas Hardy novel, but was in fact the cousin of Surman’s great, great grandmother.
In an interview in 2009 with Bill Shoemaker, Surman spoke of his solo albums being pivotal, and of how his use of synthesizers enabled him to embrace folk melodies outside a jazz context:
I didn’t think that was hip in the ‘60s …it wasn’t a conscious decision, but I think I discovered the soul of folk music in the rhythms and the bewitching melodies. But, I don’t think I’m unique in that. You look at jazz in 1900 and it’s already a world music – the Creoles, the marching bands, the Spanish influence. What I’ve been doing is just a continuation of that. Even when you talk about British folk music, it is difficult to isolate what is purely English, given how the Scottish and the Irish music have been mixed in. I grew up near Cornwall, where the Celtic influence is very strong. You can find a lot of the same melodic things happening in Scandinavian folk music, though their music is more minor and modal, which immediately made it ideal for jazz improvisation. But, I have to tell you straight up, I’m not an expert in all of this. I’m just working with it from the inside.
The synthesizer allowed me to think in terms of landscape textures which emerged from the work I did for dance in Paris, where I had a free hand and a lot of time. I discovered that I was putting these lilting melodies on top. They were sneaking in, in a way, just like when I write what I initially think will be a straight up jazz piece. I tend to hear it only after it’s finished. I’ll listen to something I’ve written for The Spaces in Between and think, ‘that’s a bit Vaughn Williams.’ It’s really more about what emerges from it than I what put into it.
Saltash Bells, the new album, is yet another highpoint in this strand of Surman’s work. Again, it was inspired by the West Country of his English childhood and memories of special places and sounds. The music was originally going to accompany a film exploring the West Country, where Surman was born and raised. Funding for the film did not materialise, but Surman persisted, inspired by his own childhood memories: ‘My father used to be a dinghy sailor, and we’d go out on a Wednesday evening on Saltash Passage… From across the river there would be the sound of bell ringing practise at Saltash Church …the echoing bells, the river going by, gulls turning in the sky’. ‘Whistman’s Wood’, meanwhile, evokes a mysterious petrified forest on Dartmoor. As in this concert, he uses three kinds of saxophone and clarinet, and synthesized washes of sound to build a soundscape so vivid you can almost see it.