Born in Devon in 1944, composer/multi-instrumentalist John Surman is one of the key figures in a generation of European musicians who have crucially expanded the international horizons of jazz in the 70s and 80s. Long acknowledged as an improvisor of world class, and composer of a body of work which extends far beyond the normal range of the jazz repertoire. Surman in the 1990s is at the height of his considerable powers.

Already, by the late 60s, it was clear that Surman was a phenomenon. He started out as a teenager playing the none-too-easy music of fellow Devonian Mike Westbrook, and then amazed the London establishment with displays of extravagant instrumental proficiency combined with a passionate, rumbustious imagination. Almost perversely, he has specialised in the most difficult of technical challenges; his first chosen instrument, the baritone saxophone , has been described as having all the agility of a double decker bus in a fallow field... Typically, John makes light of this - "I think this is a case where ignorance is bliss - I just got on with it! It's more to do with lumping it about than playing it!" He was quickly acclaimed as a major voice on the instrument - the first to make an impact since Gerry Mulligan in the early 50s.

Baritone was followed by a swing to the opposite end of the range, soprano saxophone and then a further extreme, with bass clarinet. Not only that, he began to delve into the decidedly non-U world of electronics and synthesizers, at a time when any deviation from acoustic purity was viewed with deep suspicion by the jazz fraternity.

Characteristerically, Surman's creative instincts have proved more than equal to the challenge. Everything he does is charged with a rare musicality, and the substance and originality of his work is never subservient to his undoubted technical virtuosity.

As a soloist, Surman's early career took shape in the melting pot that produced a number of fine British musicians during the 60s. As wll as his association with Westbrook, there was varied experience with Alexis Korner, Ronnie Scott, Humphrey Lyttleton, the Brotherhood of Breath and John McLaughlin, and he forged lasting relationships with John Warren, John Taylor and Dave Holland. Surman also had his own Octet, but the formation of The Trio, in 1969, can be seen as watershed in terms of his international profile. This unit, with expatriate Americans Barre Phillips (bass) and the late Stu Martin (drums) became one of the busiest and musically vital groups on the European circuit. Surman also featured (with Karin Krog) in the European Down Beat pollwinners group that toured Japan in 1970, further enhancing his reputation on the international front.

By the mid-seventies, Surman had produced a couple of important albums - the solo project Westering Home, and Morning Glory, with Terje Rypdal and John Taylor. The Trio SOS, with Alan Skidmore and Mike Osborne proved another ground-breaking project, combining electronics with the dynamic soloing of three fine saxophonists. He had also begun a long-term collaboration with the American choreographer/dancer Carolyn Carlson, and was based at the Paris Opera with her company for some time. Phase 2 of the career of the Trio saw increased use of synthesisers, and an expanded line-up (MUMPS) with the trombonist Albert Mangelsdorff. In 1978, he recorded in duo with Stan Tracey (Sonatinas) and the Norwegian singer Karin Krog (Cloudline Blue). He also toured and recorded with the quartet of bassist Miroslav Vitous until 1982.

He recorded a debut solo album, Upon Reflection, for ECM Records in 1979, launching a fruitful relationship with the company that continues to the present, and includes four further solo records; other records include Such Winters Of Memory, with Karin Krog and Pierre Favre; and the 5-star Down Beat-rated Amazing Adventures Of Simon Simon with Jack DeJohnette.

During the 80s and 90s, Surman has maintained an impressively high output of quality work. As an instrumentalist, he has played in duo with DeJohnette, Albert Mangelsdorff, Barre Phillips, John Taylor, Tony Oxley, and performed in more open group formations with peer group musicians such as Kenny Wheeler, Dave Holland, Elvin Jones, Oxley and Mangelsdorff, and in quartet with Paul Bley, Bill Frisell and Paul Motian. He toured over a period of years with the great Gil Evans. The duo with Karin Krog remains an important part of his activity, and this has been augmented by a choir on a number of occasions. In the UK, he toured twice for the Contemporary Music Network, with the 10-piece Brass Project, and with Jack DeJohnette.

As a composer, John has continued to work in the contemporary dance field, with Carolyn Carlson and for other companies in Europe. He wrote Private City for Sadlers Wells Royal Ballet - the music is featured on the ECM album of the same name. He was Composer in Residence at the Glasgow Jazz Festival in 1989, producing new work for the Surman/Krog duo plus choir, and re-forming the Brass Project (this group has also performed at the North Sea Festival, and at festivals in Portugal, France, Germany and the UK). A new departure in 1990 was a commission from the Lecester Film and Video Festival to compose and perform music to accompany the 1920s Georgian silent film "My Grandmother", this was subsequently performed at the the Musica Festival in Strasbourg (1992) and toured through Hungary in 1994. The Surman7DeJohnette duo devised new music with the Balanescu Quartet, the outstanding string quartet who specialize in new music repertoire, commissioned by the 1990 Camden Jazz Festival. He has also written music for theatre and TV, and has had music performed regularly by Radio Big Bands in Germany and Scandinavia. December 1993 saw the premiere of a new suite, commissioned for the Oslo Radio Symphony Orchestra and Quartet.

In 1994, Surman was commissioned by the Bath Festival, BBC Radio 3, the Arts Council and South West Arts, to write new music for various groupings from solo to Brass Project, and including a Nordic Quartet with Karin Krog, Terje Rypdal and Vigliek Storaas, to celebrate his 50th birthday year.

A further commission in 1996 from Salisbury Festival allowed John to return to a long-standing fascination with choral music, producing Proverbs and Songs, an extended work for solo saxophones, pipe organ (John Taylor) and the 80-strong Salisbury Festival Chorus, directed by Howard Moody, and premiered in Salisbury Cathedral. The concert was recorded for BBC Radio 3, and has now been released by ECM.

In 1998 he premiered a new chamber orchestra version of his acclaimed solo recording, The Road to St. Ives, commissioned by the Bournemouth Sinfonietta,and presented new music, commissioned by Serious, for saxophones and string quartet led by Chris Laurence. The latter work received its first performance at the Bath Festival.

As well as expanding his horizons as a composer, Surman has continued to play live throughout the world. His unique solo performances reflect the unique blend of acoustic and electronic music featured on recordings like The Road To St Ives and A Biography of the Reverend Absalom Dawe, his duo with John Taylor toured to China towards the end of 1997, and he also performs in duo with Karin Krog and with Breton harpist Kristen Nogues. His quartet with John Taylor, Chris Laurence and John Marshall remains one of the most distinctive of European small bands.

Surman has recorded prolifically for ECM over the years. During the 1990s, he has released solo albums, and recordings with the Brass Project, with the English quartet with Taylor, Laurence and Marshall, and with the the Nordic Quartet. The most recent recording under his own name is Proverbs and Songs. He has also featured on two records with Paul Bley, Gary Peacock and Tony Oxley, and onm a new album, Thimar, with Anouar Brahem and Dave Holland. The Brahem/Surman/Holland trio made its live debut at the ECM Festival in Badenweiler, Germany.

Joh Surman is a perennial pollwinner, and in 1989 received the Bird Award at the North Sea Jazz Festival and a Wire Award for services to jazz in Britain.

Surman's music transcends familiar boundaries. Although a deep love of the entire jazz tradition (early Ellington is a particular enthusiasm) is an important element, he is equally affected by the melodic qualities of choral music and English folk music - "If I look back to what turned me on about music, it was what I heard before I ever came across any jazz." The surprise, and the enduring pleasure, of Surman's art is the contrast of simple, haunting melody, lush orchestral textures and intense improvisation.


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