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John Surman John Surman
Album: Westering Home/Morning Glory
Label: Fledg’ling
Tracks: 9+4

John Surman is one of the latter-day jazz scene’s most versatile and well-regarded saxophonists, with a prolific output throughout a continuous career stretching from the mid-1960s to the present day (he still records for the prestigious ECM label). He initially gained recognition playing baritone sax in Mike Westbrook’s band, then moved rapidly onto soprano sax and bass clarinet, subsequently embarking on a series of subliminally influential and wonderfully experimental albums for various labels, beginning in 1969.

Westering Home was originally released in 1972 on Island’s budget Help label, home to all manner of innovative curios that were considered too esoteric for the main Island label. Coming after two solo albums and one collaborative venture, all for Decca’s Deram imprint, Westering Home drew together strands of creativity that Surman had started exploring as far back as his eponymous debut. His musicality, and musicianship, can only be described as prodigious, and his even then already vast experience as a go-to collaborator and session musician stood him in good stead to embrace technology and the possibilities offered by multitracking, which he did most eagerly – although entirely without showing off. He played every note on Westering Home, and its determinedly abstract avant-garde take on what might otherwise have been construed as pictorial music-making was fresh and even surprisingly accessible. Surman always had a great feel for texture too, and he relished combining the distinctive textures of different instruments covering a wide register and tonal range. For instance, The Druid is a dark bass clarinet solo, and Whirligig lays bare the soprano sax, while Watershed is a lonesome and evocative flute piece; Mock Orange includes piano and percussion, while Jynjyg plays with electronics and Outside The Scorpion layers bass parts in counterpoint and Walrus delivers sundry bass clarinet parts in sinister consort. Surman also delighted in idiosyncratic musical gestures, and was not afraid of humour or playful tangents (notably the cheeky folky intro to Hornpipe, which soon collapses in a paroxysm of free-sax improv). Westering Home is a sequence of splendid sparkling gems, serendipitous discoveries from a storm-tossed beach, but also nothing less than a fearsome and magnificent tour de force – and it’s seriously listenable to boot.

Morning Glory, which appeared the following year in 1973, at the time came as a surprise even to his growing legion of fans, even though with hindsight it can be heard to consolidate his work from the previous decade of musical activity. It formed a complete contrast to the spare chamber-jazz textures of Westering Home, being a full-blown, joyfully unfettered jazz-rock opus that was every bit as ambitious in its own way but employed a far larger canvas. Musically, it was more akin to the contemporaneous offerings from the likes of Ian Carr’s Nucleus or Soft Machine, and has even been compared to music being made Stateside by Miles Davis or Weather Report in the early 70s, to which namechecks I could also add Hot Rats/Grand Wazoo-era Frank Zappa. For Morning Glory, Surman slimmed down his own armoury to just soprano sax and bass clarinet while choosing to employ an expanded tonal palette elsewhere which brought a lyrical elasticity as a foil for his own freewheeling musical invention. He enlisted the talents of Terje Rypdal (electric guitar), John Taylor (acoustic and electric pianos), and a fulsome rhythm section consisting of Chris Laurence (bass), Malcolm Griffiths (trombone) and the restless John Marshall (drums). Of course, Taylor and Griffiths were anything but unknown quantities to Surman, having participated on earlier albums of his, but by any standards Morning Glory was a blistering album that provided much more than signposts for Surman’s music to come. The entire gamut of musical expression is here, from the driven, chaotic attack of Iron Man to the urgent teetering-on-the-brink freeform of Norwegian Steel – Septimus which plays various instrumental combinations off against each other (notably a tasty, tumbling guitar-drums duet), and the profuse, sensitive (if sometimes marginally thorny) lyricality of Hinc Iliae Lacrimae that explodes into controlled cacophony in the final chapter of its 12-minute span.

A genuine milestone in Surman’s career, Morning Glory might well be regarded as a far-sighted, and undersung, masterwork of the jazz-rock sub-genre – it really is tremendous. And the remastered sound on this first “official” CD issue of the album is absolutely superb, clear and full-bodied. Heartiest congratulations to Fledg’ling for taking the chance on this pair of long-overdue Surman reissues – more please, and soon!

David Kidman