John Surman is a British born composer and multi -instrumentalist specializing in the jazz genre. Although John can perform on a number of instruments, his preferred choice is the saxophone. As a child, John would listen to his father's classical 78's and began singing Bach and Handel at a local church choir. As he reached his teens, he acquired a second-hand clarinet and started improvising along with the radio. Eventually, John switched to saxophone and started to hone his craft in the hotbed music scene in London during the 1960's. John started to make a name for himself with his great riffs and strong practice regimen. As word spread about John, he started working with local notables such as Mike Westbrook, John Mclaughlin, Alexis Korner, Ronnie Scott, and many other jazz musicians. John would move on to constantly explore all styles of jazz: Free Jazz, Hard Bop, Straight Ahead, and others. He would not be happy to stay within the lines and was constantly pushing the limits of the instrument. Throughout his prolific career, he has composed many albums with a who's who in the international jazz field. At one point of his career, John was a member of the prestigious Gil Evans Orchestra. He produced many solo records and experimented a great deal with synthesizers to expand his horizons even further. John continues his career today with a rigorous touring schedule. When he takes a break from touring, he's right back in the studio creating more music. I recently conversed with John.
R.V.B. - What kind of music were you exposed to around the house at a young age?
J.S. - I grew up in Plymouth Devon, listening to mostly classical music. My father was a keen amateur pianist and the small collection of 78s that we had were all orchestral music really. I began singing in the local church choir and actually developed a strong solo voice - so I did a lot of singing (Bach/Handel etc) before my voice changed.
R.V.B. - What instruments did you start with? Did you start playing standards and classical music first?
J.S. - My first instrument was second-hand clarinet. There was a wave of interest in so called "Trad" jazz in the UK in the 1950s and I started to play along with the radio. I would have been around 15 years then I think. I soon found a local Jazz club and learned about Armstrong, Johnny Dodds etc.
R.V.B. - As you started to gravitate towards jazz, which musicians in the field inspired you and how did you go about learning their riffs? Did you buy their records at a local shop and try to imitate them?
J.S. - As my previous answer tells you, I began more or less at the beginning with New Orleans music and also got to hear Leadbelly and the great blues masters as well. Yes! I was very lucky that there was a specialist jazz record store run by a guy called Peter Russell - and I have to thank him for the many, many hours I spent in one of the listening booths soaking up hour after hour of music. In truth, that was my real University education - although I was to spend 3 years at the London College of music and a further year at London University Department of Education.
R.V.B. - What was the first real band you were in and what instruments were you playing at the time? Do you remember your first paying gig?
J.S. - By the time I was 17 I started playing in local dance bands before I moved to London - I actually played bass and piano in those bands and clarinet in the Dixieland outfits - but this was all amateur stuff. After I moved to London in 1963 I started gigging with Mike Westbrook's band and from time to time we started to get paid engagements.
R.V.B. - Things started heating up and you began playing with band leaders Mike Westbrook and Graham Collier. Is this where you really started honing your chops and adding extra instruments to your arsenal? The Alexis Corner Blues band was one of the top early blues bands in England, how did it come about playing with them? Wasn't it a little different than playing jazz?
J.S. - I actually started playing Baritone sax around 1960 and then added soprano sax a few years later when I could afford one. Once I arrived in London, then I met other musicians of course and started going to jam sessions and so on. Of course this was the way in which you start to get invited to join groups and get gigs. I slowly made my way up the ladder - I think Tubby Hayes heard me play and recommended me to some Big Band leaders - leading to my first BBC broadcast - and it was Sonny Rollins who recommended me to Ronnie Scott. (Sonny came down to a club where I was jamming with some friends). I have always enjoyed playing Blues - so the gigs I did with Alexis Korner were a pleasure.
R.V.B. - In the late 60's you began your recording career. Was it more demanding to record then to play live at a club? Are there any recorded performances a during the time that you are proud of?
J.S. - It's an interesting thing that when we are dealing with things in the "here and now" we don't tend to have much of an historical perspective on these things. So I think that, at the time, I just took the broadcasts and recordings as they came, without thinking much about them ... just more fun and an opportunity to play. Asked to note an important recording from that time, I would suggest Mike Westbrook's Marching Song (Decca). It is a remarkable piece, to which I contributed a couple of modest episodes - and I think the album has a significance even today!
R.V.B. - How did you come across the American players that were with you in "The Trio". Was that more of a showcase band for you and how was it playing out live with this act?
J.S. - Both Stu & Barre passed through London. We got to play together a bit & decided that a Trio would be a great idea. Because of work permit restrictions they couldn't stay resident in the UK so we rented a farmhouse in Belgium. It was anything BUT a showcase - in fact very much a co-operative - in step with the times! The group proved very popular and gave me a chance to work throughout Europe and make contacts that I have kept throughout my career.
R.V.B. - How did you go about getting an all saxophone band together. It must have taken a lot of conversation to get all the guys to play different parts with the same instrument?
J.S. - Well actually the 3 of us were friends before we started the band. I just thought that it would be interesting to do something more like a folk music band. So basically we had the 3 horns ..and Skid played some percussion & I hit the keys for a bit of variety.
R.V.B. - In the early 70's the synthesizer was a relatively new instrument. You started toying with one and eventually made an album all by yourself. What instruments did you lay down first and was it kind of experiment with it or did you have certain things in mind?
J.S. - My first solo recording "Westering Home" on Island records was made pre-synth. I used what was then (in 1970) a relatively new possibility - multi tracking - I also used some other techniques like tape reverse and looping as well as playing some purely solo pieces. A couple of years after that synths became a bit more affordable - so I started on my voyage of discovery with them. Most of the early solo albums I did relied on improvisation in the studio as the synths did not have the kind of advanced memories that they do these days. I might set up a synth pattern and then play over it ... but in fact different pieces would be done in different ways really.
R.V.B. - When you went out to compose a piece of work in your career, where did you do your writing? in your house? in the studio? was there any inspirational venue or scenery that helped you write?
J.S. - It's impossible to know when ideas arrive! I work best at home - never been good at writing 'on the road' sadly. Sometimes you just have to sit down and wait/hope for ideas. Other times is best just to start writing even if you are not exactly thrilled by the ideas ..then later you can go back and revise. Occasionally the miracle happens and something comes to you that almost writes it-self.
R.V.B. - You've played with many talented musicians in your career. Is there any that stepped outside the box more than others?
J.S. - I'd have to say that the tours I did with Gil Evans stand out as special highlights - but in truth most encounters have had great moments in them!
R.V.B. - What are some of the songs that you composed in your career that you really enjoyed writing?
J.S. - Writing "Proverbs and Songs" was quite a challenge - but I gradually realised that all my memories of being in church choirs and singing were popping up and finding a way out. That was fun.
R.V.B. - What do you like to do in your off time when you are not playing music?
J.S. - I am a keen supporter of my local soccer club here in Norway (Stabak) and also enjoy swimming.
R.V.B. - What do you have going on these days? Anything new?
J.S. - Presently enjoying some gigs with the BERGEN BIG BAND, following release of new CD "ANOTHER SKY". Also preparing for concerts in London Jazz Festival in November, and touring in Europe with my son Pablo Benjamin (electronica) and Karin Krog (voice)
Interview conducted by Robert von Bernewitz
this interview may not be reproduced in any part or form without permission.
For more information on John Surman visit his website www.johnsurman.com
Photo credit Tim Dickeson. Thanks to Martel Ollerenshaw
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