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John Surman

English saxophonist John Surman is a world-class composer, his large, diverse body of work -- classical, theatrical, and soundtrack -- has extended the boundaries of jazz. Following an eponymous leader debut in 1969, he recorded Where Fortune Smiles with guitarist John McLaughlin in 1971, and Morning Glory on Island with Terje Rypdal, John Marshall, and John Taylor in 1973. He signed with ECM (on which he has recorded almost exclusively since) for 1979's solo Upon Reflection, overdubbing saxes, clarinet, and synthesizer. Following The Adventures of Simon Simon with drummer Jack DeJohnette and Such Winters of Memory with singer Karin Krog, he kicked off the '90s with the solo Road to Saint Ives. Two wide-ranging quartet dates -- Adventure Playground (1992) and Stranger Than Fiction (1994) -- set the stage for 1997's live Proverbs and Songs, with Surman playing over a church organ and the Salisbury Festival Chorus. 2000's Coruscating and 2007's The Spaces in Between showcased the saxophonist with string groups. 2012's landmark, award-winning Saltash Bells marked a return to solo recording. 2015's Songs About This and That reunited him with Krog. 2018's trio offering Invisible Threads featured Brazilian pianist Nelson Ayers and vibraphonist Rob Waring. Surman and Waring enlisted guitarist Rob Luft and drummer Thomas Strønen for 2024's Words Unspoken in celebration of his 80th birthday. Surman was born in 1944 in Tavistock, in Devon. He studied clarinet as a child, then tenor, baritone, and soprano saxophones. He began playing jazz at the London College of Music and later studied at the London University Institute of Education. Surman met composer/arranger/pianist Mike Westbrook in 1962. The latter was forming a big band; the former was a get because he played the baritone horn. Surman's work with the Westbrook band placed him on stages across England and resulted in the Deram recordings Celebration (1967) and Release (1968). Surman formed his own quartet and won the designation of "best soloist" at the 1968 Montreux Jazz Festival. He signed with Deram for his eponymous leader debut in 1969. His large lineup included alto saxophonist Mike Osborne, bassists Dave Holland and Harry Miller, trumpeters Kenny Wheeler and Harry Beckett, and trombonists Malcolm Griffiths and Paul Rutherford. Following the album's release, Surman played with composer Graham Collier as well as Westbrook, and toured Europe with the Kenny Clarke/Francy Boland Big Band -- he can be heard on the album Off Limits. He also recorded as The Trio with bassist Barre Phillips and drummer Stu Martin, and issued an eponymous 1969 album alongside his sophomore outing How Many Clouds Can You See? Surman played on recordings by Westbrook, Osborne, Alan Skidmore, and Michael Gibbs, and recorded Our Kind of Sabi on MPS in trio with Eddie Louiss and Daniel Humair. Later in 1970, Surman re-teamed with McLaughlin; they enlisted vibraphonist Karl Berger, Martin, and Holland for the album Where Fortune Smiles. In 1971, Surman and baritone saxophonist John Warren released the globally acclaimed Tales of the Algonquin on Deram, served with Blue Notes' pianist Chris McGregor on Chris McGregor's Brotherhood of Breath, released Conflagration with The Trio, and played on Taylor's Pause, And Think Again. In 1975, Westbrook's band released Citadel/Room 315 for RCA with Surman as a co-billed soloist. The following year, the saxophonist and bassist Tony Levin released Live at Moers Festival, and in 1978, Surman and pianist Stan Tracey teamed up for Sonatinas. The saxophonist signed with ECM Records in late 1978. In May 1979 he recorded Upon Reflection, his debut album for the label, completely solo, overdubbing saxes, synths, and clarinets. The critical acclaim was unanimous. He has recorded on ECM ever since. (He has issued select titles for other labels.) That year he also began a working relationship with vocalist Karin Krog; they recorded and released Cloud Line Blue for Polydor. Surman led the Brass Project in the early '80s and played in Collier's big band and Gil Evans' British orchestra. He also recorded on ECM as a sideman on dates by bassists Miroslav Vitous and Barre Phillips. In 1981, he issued The Amazing Adventures of Simon Simon in duo with drummer Jack DeJohnette and followed in 1983 with Such Winters of Memory on ECM with Krog and drummer Pierre Favre. Surman returned to solo recording with 1985's Withholding Pattern, retaining the format for 1988's Private City. That year he played on ECM's Paul Bley Quartet and the duo album Freestyle with Krog on Odin. Surman issued the solo The Road to Saint Ives in 1990 and toured with the Stan Getz Quartet for On Stage. In 1992, he was a co-billed soloist on Taylor's Ambleside Days and released Adventure Playground accompanied by Bley, drummer Tony Oxley, and bassist Peacock. This quartet issued In the Evenings Out There in 1993, the same year Surman & Warren's The Brass Project appeared. He also served as a co-billed soloist on guitarist John Abercrombie's November. Surman's quartet -- with Abercrombie, drummer Peter Erskine, and bassist Marc Johnson -- released Stranger Than Fiction in 1994. In 1995, Surman released the solo A Biography of the Rev. Absalom Dawe; Nordic Quartet with Krog, Terje Rypdal, and Vigleik Storaas also appeared. On June 1, 1996, the composer and saxophonist entered the Salisbury Cathedral with organist John Taylor and the 75-voice Salisbury Festival Chorus and performed and recorded a suite of choral settings of Old Testament texts. The performance was released as Proverbs and Songs in 1997, and nominated for the Mercury Prize in 1998, the same year Surman and Holland joined Turkish oudist Anouar Brahem on the latter's trio offering Thimar. Before the year was out, Surman guested on singer-songwriter Christine Collister's The Dark Gift of Time. He closed the century with John Dowland: In Darkness Let Me Dwell, a recording of the 16th century English composer's songs with John Potter as vocalist joined by Surman, bassist Barry Guy, violinist Maya Homburger, and lutenist Stephen Stubbs. He also released the collaborative Bluesand with Krog and was a featured soloist on pianist Misha Alperin's First Impression in 1998. Surman issued Coruscating in 2000, performing alongside bassist Chris Laurence and string quartet Trans4mation. Its music was commissioned by Serious, the London Jazz Festival, the Bath International Music Festival, and the Art Council of England. He also appeared as a sideman playing bass clarinet on electronics duo Spring Heel Jack's Disappeared. In 2001, Musica Jazz issued The Music of John Surman, a compilation of his compositions and several written for him. He also rejoined Collier, playing on her album An Equal Love. In 2002, Surman and DeJohnette re-teamed for a second duo album titled Invisible Nature. He also appeared on Flamingos Fly by Krog and guitarist Jacob Young. In 2003, Surman released his soundtrack for the film Apartment #5C on M2K Music. On ECM, he issued the acclaimed Free & Equal, written for saxophones and London Brass with DeJohnette on drums, and Care-Charming Sleep, the second entry from the John Dowland Project. In 2002, he appeared on Pet Shop Boys' Back to Mine and directed the Bergen Big Band and Krog on Seagull. Surman toured and did session work for the next few years. The next album to appear under his name was 2007's The Spaces in Between, recorded with Laurence and the Trans4mation string ensemble. 2008's Rain on the Window was recorded in a duo with organist Howard Moody, while the Dowland Project's Romaria also appeared. Following more work with Krog on Oslo Calling (2008) and Folkways (2010), an independent Norwegian label released The Rainbow Band Sessions that he conducted and arranged in 2006 and 2007. Surman returned to solo recording for the widely acclaimed Saltash Bells. It was conceived as a collaboration with Norwegian filmmaker and photographer Odd-Geir Sæther. The music and cinematic images explored the English West Country where Surman grew up. The album was linked to earlier solo works and considered quintessentially "English" by critics across the globe. At home it took the Jazz FM Award and Parliamentary Jazz Award for Album of the Year. In 2013 he and Krog collaborated on Songs About This and That. In 2014, Surman served as director of the Bergen Big Band on the Grappa-released Another Sky comprised exclusively of his compositions. In 2020, Surman privately issued Oceanic Rifts in collaboration with his son, Ben, on keyboards. Surman's work would not be confined by convenient definitions. His long history of collaborating with musicians from other countries and cultures continually resulted in the unexpected. In 2014 he met Brazilian jazz pianist Nelson Ayres (Airto Moreira, Milton Nascimento) while working on Marlui Miranda's Fala De Bicho, Fala De Gente album. Back in Oslo, Surman got to know and appreciate expatriate American vibraphonist Rob Waring. This trio entered Oslo's Rainbow Studio in the summer of 2017 to record a program of Surman's originals -- and Ayres' "Summer Song" -- with producer Manfred Eicher. The recording was released in January 2018 as Invisible Threads and drew global acclaim for its warmth, intimacy, and use of intricate harmonic languages. In 2020, Surman privately issued Oceanic Rifts in collaboration with his son Ben on keyboards. Surman regrouped with vibraphonist Waring at Oslo Rainbow Studios in December 2022 with guitarist Rob Luft and drummer Thomas Strønen. They recorded ten compositions by the saxophonist. ECM released the date as Words Unspoken in February 2024. The album was released in anticipation of Surman's 80th birthday.
© Thom Jurek /TiVo

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