Q&A with John Surman: Shared Experience

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Percussionist Rob Waring (left), pianist Nelson Ayres and reedist John Surman recorded Invisible Threads for ECM.

(Photo: Anne Valeur/ECM Records)

Thanks to the arrival of new acts like trumpeter Yazz Ahmed, experimental trio The Comet Is Coming and soul-jazz singer Zara McFarlane, jazz in England is enjoying broad plaudits unseen since the heyday of the Acid era in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. So, it’s the perfect time to get reacquainted with one of the country’s most lauded musicians, reedist John Surman.

The 73-year-old expat, who now calls Norway home, made waves on the UK music scene in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s as one of the first jazz players to record for traditional rock labels like Deram and Island, as well as being a pioneer in the utilization of synthesizers to augment the sound of the saxophone.

In 2018, Surman continues to defy expectations with the debut of an intriguing new trio on ECM Records, an imprint the bandleader’s worked with for decades. Performing with legendary Brazilian composer and arranger Nelson Ayres on piano and renowned American-born percussionist Rob Waring on marimba and vibes, Invisible Threads is the sound of intuition in motion by players who only met a few days before entering Oslo’s Rainbow Studio. The performances captured on the album, though, make it seem as though they’ve been playing together for years.

DownBeat had the opportunity to speak with Surman about the invisible threads that have woven this trio together.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The roots of Invisible Threads stem from a project you were doing with Brazilian vocalist Marlui Miranda about the Juruna canoe people, who live along the Xingu River in the Amazon. Have you been to Brazil before?
Actually, when I went to record that album where I met Nelson, it was the first time I’d ever been to South America. It had been one of those places I always wanted to go to, so it was fun. Since then, I’ve been there several times and I love it.

What was that experience like for you?
It was a wild experience. We were in a studio in São Paulo, with a Skype link to the location right there in the Amazon Basin. There were settlements where the tribespeople could go to health clinics and pick up things they needed. And they’ve got TV and Skype there. So, we were in this studio, and several members of the Juruna were listening to us playing their music. It was wild.

In what ways did working with Miranda inform the music on Invisible Threads?
Sharing that experience with Nelson played a big role. When we were recording that music, you have to really get down to the nitty gritty, the bare bones of what making music is all about. That tribal music—this is the ancestry of all recorded music, coming into their riffs and their patterns. And I think sharing that with Nelson was a good way to begin our work.

We got down to the bottom and found out what it was all about. So, with that shared experience, we just jammed together and [did] concerts of more regular jazz material. He’s a wonderful player and he’s got all that Brazilian feel in it. And then Rob came along, because I really felt it would be nice to have marimba in there and vibes. And Rob’s done all kinds of music, the same as Nelson and me. We’ve done the freeform stuff, orchestral work and such. So, we shared this wide range of music and these were our findings. You’re in at the ground-floor level with us, because this is the first thing we’ve done. Who knows where it will lead?

Your Westering Home turned 45 last year. You were one of the few jazz musicians to record for Island Records during the imprint’s first 10 years. How did you wind up there?
Someone at the label was just interested in what I was doing at the time, which was The Trio with Barre Phillips and Stu Martin. I had recorded Westering Home on my own, so I think I just sent them the tape and they took it.

That was the first time I worked with loops and overdubbing. It was the beginning of the affordable synthesizer. So, once they came out, I got interested in them. A lot of people were experimenting with that stuff back in the day. When I met Jack DeJohnette when he was in the Bill Evans Trio, we both found out we were into synths and loops and everything. And that is what began a long friendship with him. We’ve worked quite a lot over the years doing material with electronics and electronic drums and treatments for saxophone. There’s one in particular, Invisible Nature, that I loved recording.

As a British jazz musician, it must be great to see all the attention contemporary acts in England have been.
I do what they call a development course over here in Norway, where eight young musicians come over to study. And they all get together and we play, and I’ll help coordinate it and jam with them. And I’ve been doing it for 10 years now, maybe 12. So, I’ve met maybe about 96 of those musicians you are talking about, hung out with them and played with them.

There are quite a lot of excellent young musicians in England, and perhaps they don’t get the kind of exposure the musicians here in Norway do. One thing that they are lucky for here is they get financial support. The state backs them. Their careers get invested in; they can apply for grants to help with touring, rehearsing and recording. That’s not possible in England for traveling. If British musicians had that kind of support from the state, I think they’d be out a bit more. DB




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