John Surman was one of the very few saxmen in England to find a significant rock audience during the late '60s, playing gigs regularly at venues like the Marquee Club in London. Also a clarinetist of some renown, and no slouch on keyboards either, the atmospheric sounds that Surman creates on his horns have been a major asset to the ECM label ever since the late '70s; but, before that, he was an extremely prolific artist on Deram, Futura, Dawn, and Island, cutting seven solo albums between 1968 and 1974 on those mainstream pop-oriented labels, as well as recording with Morning Glory on Island. One of England's top jazz players across many decades, Surman is particularly strong on the baritone. Surman played in jazz workshops while still in high school. He studied at the London College of Music and London University Institute of Education in the mid-'60s, played with Alexis Korner and Mike Westbrook until the late '60s, and recorded with the latter until the mid-'70s. He was voted best soloist at the 1968 Montreux Festival while heading his band. Surman worked with Graham Collier, Mike Gibbs, Dave Holland, Chris McGregor, and John McLaughlin in the '60s, and toured Europe with the Kenny Clarke/Francy Boland big band in 1970.
Surman toured and recorded with Barre Phillips and Stu Martin in the late '60s and early '70s, and again in the late '70s, adding Albert Mangelsdorff to the group. They called themselves the Trio, then Mumps. Surman played with Mike Osborne and Alan Skidmore in the sax trio S.O.S. in the mid-'70s. He also collaborated with the Carolyn Carlson dance company at the Paris Opera through the mid- and late '70s. Surman recorded with Stan Tracey and Karin Krog, while working with Miroslav Vitous and Azimuth. He led the Brass Project in the early '80s, and played in Collier's big band and Gil Evans' British orchestra. Surman toured with Evans again in the late '80s. He began recording as a leader for Pye in the early '70s, and did sessions for Ogun and ECM. Surman continued recording in the '80s, mostly for ECM. He worked with Terje Rypdal, Jack DeJohnette, Pierre Favre, Bengt Hallberg, Archie Shepp, Warne Marsh, and Red Mitchell, among others. Surman has made many recordings for ECM, spanning from free-form to mood music, and he remains one of the label's most consistently stimulating artists.
In the 21st century, though he has recorded infrequently, many of Surman's earliest and ECM recordings have been reissued to considerable acclaim, bringing a fresh focus on his considerable reputation. Arriving in 2012, Saltash Bells (a completely solo effort) was conceived as a collaboration with Norwegian filmmaker and photographer Odd-Geir Sæther. The music and images explored the English West Country where Surman grew up. The album was globally acclaimed and linked to earlier works such as Upon Reflection (1979), Withholding Pattern (1984), Private City (1987), and The Road to Saint Ives (1990) as quintessentially "English" works. But Surman's work could not be confined by convenient definitions because of his long history of working with musicians from other countries and cultures. He met Brazilian jazz pianist Nelson Ayres (Airto Moreira, Milton Nascimento, and Banda Pau Brasil) while working on a Marlui Miranda album. In Oslo, Surman came to know and appreciate expatriate American vibraphonist Rob Waring. These three musicians entered Oslo's Rainbow Studio in the summer of 2017 to record a program of Surman's originals -- as well as Ayres' "Summer Song" -- with producer Manfred Eicher. The recording was released the following January as Invisible Threads.
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