John Surman

Neil McKim talks to the British saxophonist

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British jazz saxophone legend John Surman has released a solo multi-instrumental album, Saltash Bells, his latest ECM disc to be inspired by the West Country landscape of his youth.

Your album Saltash Bells revisits the landscape around Devon that has featured on your previous solo releases. How did the disc come about?
The title piece ‘Saltash Bells’ is what everything rotated around. My father was a keen dinghy sailor and the sailing club was right opposite Saltash Parish Church, on the Devon side of the river Tamar. When we used to go out on Wednesdays they’d have bell-ringing practice at the church and I loved the sound of those bells, coming across the water and the river estuary.

That mood stayed with me. I found the [looped synthesiser] pattern – the one at the beginning of the track ‘Saltash Bells’ – and thought ‘I know what that reminds me of’. That was the beginning and it took me back again on a trip to Devon: ‘Whistman’s Wood’ is on Dartmoor and it’s a place I knew quite well from my youth, ‘On Staddon Heights’ is the hill that overlooks Plymouth Sound, and the Crooked Inn is a pub in Cornwall.

You have created some shimmering sea-like effects on the album…
Yes, it’s that kind of stuff which has fascinated me ever since I bumped into the world of synthesisers. The Moog and the EMS and all those synths that became affordable, came out in the mid 1970s and I love that bell-like sound that you could get with them. That’s been central to these solo records that I’ve done over the years.

You’ve been with ECM a long time. How has it changed?
Back in the late seventies it was a much smaller company and there was a small group of musicians and we tended to know each other. It was a very personal thing to begin with – but it is still very much Manfred Eicher’s company. He still looks after all aspects of it really. So it still has his touch to it.

 

You were working in London in the Sixties. How was that as a jazz musician?
That era was quite fascinating because interestingly enough, aside from the development through blues – into the Rolling Stones and The Kinks – it was the avant-garde that was the most popular form of the music. That kind of ‘anything goes’ and ‘let freedom ring’ thing that was happening. For example, some of Coltrane’s extremely ‘out there’ albums were actually selling by the thousand. There was so many things going on. Chris McGregor had come from South Africa, all the West Indian influences were there, Calypso, and then jazz fusion was beginning at the Marquee Club – with bands like King Crimson and Nucleus.

At that time you recorded on Decca’s subsidiary ‘progressive’ label Deram. Did you consider yourself as part of a new music movement or as a jazz musician?
My whole leaning, my whole background came from jazz. The people that really fascinated me were the great jazz players, such as John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy and Sonny Rollins. I always had a leaning in that direction but I’ve also always thought that if it’s good, check it out. I’ve always seen myself as a jazz musician because it was through jazz that I found out about improvisation – which is the key factor in the work I do.

What got you into jazz in the first place?
It was the BBC! It would have been the Light Programme and the Third Programme because I was attracted to what was popular at the time – and that was Acker Bilk and those traditional jazz bands. Having come out of the church choir (and my voice breaking) I missed music and bought a second-hand clarinet. I played along with Saturday Club and Skiffle Club and I listened to people like Charles Fox – the legendary BBC jazz broadcaster. That was important for me, living as I did in Plymouth.

John Surman’s disc ‘Saltash Bells (ECM 279 8108) is out now and reviewed in the July issue of BBC Music Magazine.

‘Lifelines’, a joint commission from Radio 3 and the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival for piano, saxophones and the Bolsterstone Male Voice Choir, will be performed by John Surman at the festival on 17 November. It will be performed again on 18 November at the London Jazz Festival in the Queen Elizabeth Hall.