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Brief Encounters #5


It ain’t no use
scrolling through the Google street views, it’s all changed, this scruffy industrial district out in London’s east end – Hackney or was it Shoreditch? – gentrified beyond recognition. Too soon Peter Ind was, as is always the case for those before the vogue.

We’d arrived early, anxious, not knowing this part of London, too early for the Bass Clef program to begin. Almost next door was a pub, a pint or two to kill time. The interior a typical squalid English pub pungent with stale beer and cigarettes, a handful of customers, regulars most likely; a morbid looking lot.

The dimly-lit narrow cobblestone lane was not a welcoming location, but the the Bass Clef stairway led us down into a labyrinth of archwayed rooms filled with noisy fans all awaiting the beginning of the performance of a band under the “leadership” of pianist Paul Bley. Bill Frisell the guitarist and John Surman – the first and only time I will ever experience his music in person – wielding baritone and soprano saxophones. Not the most successful of outings, the ECM imprint already too apparent. Mostly inoffensive noodlin’.

The music of “Flashpoint: NDR Jazz Workshop” is from a quite different time, the spring of 1969, in the midst of a great bubbling fermentation, the earlier recording “How Many Clouds Can You See” from just a month previous, with an almost identical grouping, suggesting this newly arriving future.

Of this recording I wrote in Coda Magazine: “Side one begins with an extended composition performed by the eight piece band entitled “Galata Bridge” [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l9UNP7njOFc]. This brings about some of the most interesting compositional structures I’ve heard played by such a small unit. The variations in texture, tempos and orchestral form quite amazing.”

And that’s not the only evidence, there are the orchestras of Graham Collier, Mike Westbrook and Chris McGregor featuring Surman’s explosive saxophones, and not to forget the fabulous quartet from January of that same year: “Extrapolation” – the signature recording of guitarist John McLaughlin with bassist Brian Odges and drummer Tony Oxley.

Again in Coda Magazine I wrote: “The success of this album is very hard to separate into nice neat clichéd boxes, but a good deal of it has to do with the extraordinary talents of John Surman. Surman plays baritone and soprano saxophone on this recording, but it is more than apparent that the baritone is his horn. He appears to have rejected the premise that the baritone is an unwieldy instrument and just plays it however he wants to. His control, from the conventional range of the horn, to the several false octaves are all done with apparent ease. And he swings like hell.”

It’s Harry Miller’s bass that plants the seeds of an ever flowering garden of delight, the Jazz Workshop program kicking off with “Mayflower” [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cJL0I3NROOw]. Can you call sound motion – shifting, stirring, rising, falling – or colour? Are art forms, origins, messages, so different – eventually? On we go through a program of five pieces, three composed by Mister Surman and two by the Austrian guests: trombonist Erich Kleinschuster and pianist Fritz Pauer.

For the jazz-o-phile who obsesses over minutiae the DVD allows the identification of the soloists, which horn player has stood up, taking his turn. But that is not really the point, the message that’s clear is the future is in place, that by the time they arrive at “Flashpoint”, the final composition in this wonderful workshop, the opening gambit an interactive improvised gorgeous cacophony leading to Osborne, Skidmore and Surman flying high – the first evidence of his mighty baritone soloing – it is apparent that a new age of British music has arrived.

Brian Morton’s informative liner notes reveal the conditions that existed in England in this period, that this music was rising up out of a lingering post-war cultural conformity, this new generation of musicians beginning to strut their stuff. Just listening to the energy, roiling I would say, and those other voices: Mike Osborne’s strident alto saxophone, the elegant flugelhorn of Kenny Wheeler, Alan Skidmore’s beefy tenor, the unbridled dexterity of Malcolm Griffith’s trombone, the circular freewheeling drumming of Alan Jackson partnered with Harry Miller’s powerful bass, an early opportunity to relish their substance. English I would have to say. A different sensibility.

There has been a handful of film projects I’ve been involved with over the years, a series of short films with Mark Tollefson, half dozen sound tracks, the award winning documentary “Imagine The Sound” with Ron Mann, but in general there’s been little interest watching contemporary jazz films. What has been enjoyed are those monochromatic films shot among surreal staging: Cab Calloway’s extravagant zoot suits, the jitterbuggers padded shoulders and wing-tipped shoes, pencil thin moustaches, Brylcreemed hair parted straight down the middle, Willie “The Lion” Smith’s bowler hat and cigar, Dizzy’s bebop beret and goatee, Monk’s hat, beard and bamboo-framed glasses; the flamboyant style, look and feel of eras before my time, before I could hear the music in person.

And so, to a certain degree, it is with the video part of this package, the session, a look into the working of a studio produced workshop complete with comments and instruction for each composition – “take as much time as you need for your solo”, the camaraderie of the players, smiling appreciation passing among them, a quick glance of approval, all lending to the atmosphere, and then the smokers lighting up their fags at the first opportunity, clouds of smoke whirling about the studio. This intelligent documentary, thankfully filmed before jump-cutting replaced the idea of creativity, also gives a brief glimpse into the sixties, still, in many folks thinking, the hippest time that can be remembered. The look of them all, witnessing the style of a generation, my own as it happens; the mop haircuts, moustaches, beards, sideburns reaching down over the jawbone, serious youthful musicians. Even the godfather of them all – Ronnie Scott, who I’ve failed to mention, looking cool in a sixties London sort-of-way.

Seeing so many of my heroes in a time when I, as a listener, was just discovering them, brings about that nostalgic longing, and as a player I found workshops and rehearsals were often more interesting than actual performance. The two representations: one listening to the music on CD and the other being allowed into the process of creating it, is a special privilege that through the diligence of the folk at Cuneiform you can share.

And so the triptych of Donnie Walsh, Richard Underhill and John Surman, the subjects unknowingly pressed into service for my opinions pertaining to the usefulness of video representation in our music, ends. But not, it seems, the journey, as it has led me to a number of recordings that sit in my modest collection, a number of these intrepid warriors continuing on into yet more sonic adventures… to be exposed in Brief Encounters #5.

End Notes:

John Surman • Flashpoint
NDR Jazz Workshop – April 1969
Cuneiform 2011
John Surman’s Home Page: http://johnsurman.com
John Surman photograph Erik Fuglseth: http://www.erikfuglseth.no
Cuneiform Records: http://www.cuneiformrecords.com
Peter Ind – http://www.peterind.com

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“Never Let It End” (Albert Mangelsdorff)