John Surman

Born in Tavistock, Devon in 1944, composer/multi-instrumentalist John Surman is one of the key figures in a generation of European musicians who have crucially expanded the international horizons of jazz during the past thirty years or so. Surman is long recognized as a world-class improviser. However, his work goes far beyond what the standard jazz repertoire allows. Surman was already a star by the end of his 60s. As a teenager, Surman began to play the music of Mike Westbrook. He then wowed the London establishment with his extraordinary instrumental skills and a passionate, rumbustious imagination. Surman began his solo career in the 1960s melting pot, where he was one of many fine British musicians. Along with his association with Westbrook there was also a wide range of experience with the blues of Alexis Korner and Ronnie Scott’s octet. There were also many opportunities to hear mainstream jazz with Humphrey Lyttleton. He also had a lot of exposure to South African township influences through the Brotherhood of Breath. John McLaughlin played jazz-rock. He also developed lasting friendships with John Warren, John Taylor, and Dave Holland. They co-led an exhilarating trio that was featured on his first album, ‘John Surman’, for Deram. Surman was also a leader of his Octet in 1968, and performed with the big band under Mike Gibbs. However, The Trio’s formation in 1969 can be considered a turning point in his international career. The unit was formed by Barre Phillips (bass), and the late StuMartin (drums). It became one of Europe’s most important and busiest groups. Surman was also a member of the European DownBeat pollwinners team that toured Japan in 1970. This further enhanced his international reputation. Surman produced two important albums by the mid-seventies: Morning Glory with Terje Rypdal, John Marshall, Chris Laurence and Malcolm Griffiths. Trio SOS was another groundbreaking project that combined electronics and the dynamic soloings of three great saxophonists. He also had a long-term partnership with Carolyn Carlson (American choreographer/dancer), and spent some time at the Paris Opera. He recorded two duo albums in 1978 with Stan Tracey (Sonatinas), and Karin Krog (Cloudline Blue). He also toured with and recorded with Miroslav Vitous’ quartet until 1982. ECM Records released his first solo album, titled ‘Upon Reflection’, in 1979. This sparked a long-lasting relationship that continues today with the label, which includes four more solo albums. Other albums include “Such Winters Of Memory” with Karin Krog, Pierre Favre, and “The Amazing Adventures Of Simon Simon”, a 5-star Down Beat-rated album with Jack DeJohnette. John produced a remarkable amount of high-quality work in the 80s and 1990s. He was an instrumentalist and played in duo with DeJohnette and Albert Mangelsdorff. He also recorded and toured in a quartet with Bill Frisell, Paul Bley and Paul Motian. Surman was a member of Gil Evans Orchestra for many years. He performed and recorded live with Sting in Perugia, as well as a variety of special concerts the band put on with Van Morrison and John McLaughlin. His activities include the duo with Karin Krog, which is still a major part of his work. On a few occasions, a choir of mixed voices has been added to this group. He has been on tour twice in the UK for the Contemporary Music Network. Once with the 10-piece Brass Project and then with Jack DeJohnette. John continues to compose contemporary dance music, both with Carolyn Carlson as well as for other European companies. He composed “Private City” for Sadlers Wells Royal Ballet, with choreography from Susan Crow. The music can be found on the ECM album. In 1989, he was the Glasgow Jazz Festival’s Composer in Resident. He composed new music for Surman/Krog and the choir. Also, he re-formed the Brass Project. This group has performed at the North Sea Festival and other festivals in Portugal, France and Germany. The Surman/DeJohnette Duo created new music together with the Balanescu Quartet, which was commissioned by 1990 Camden Jazz Festival. He has written music for television and theatre, and his music has been performed by Radio Big Bands in Germany as well as Scandinavia. A new suite was premiered by Surman for the Oslo Radio Symphony Orchestra Quartet in December 1993. Surman was asked by the BBC Radio 3 and South West Arts to compose new music for different groups, including solo and Brass Project. This was in celebration of his 50th birthday. In 1996, John was commissioned by Salisbury Festival to produce Proverbs and Songs. This extended work for solo saxophone and pipe organ (John Taylor), and the Salisbury Festival Chorus (80 strong), was premiered at Salisbury Cathedral. ECM has released the recording of the concert. This album was one of the Mercury Prize selections for the 1998 ‘Album of the year’ award. It is still very popular and has been performed across the globe, including in France, Switzerland, Romania, Switzerland, and the UK. He premiered a chamber orchestra version of The Road to St. Ives, his solo album, in 1998. It was performed by the Bournemouth Sinfonietta. Surman continues to perform live around the globe, as well as expanding his horizons in composition. His solo performances are a unique reflection of his special blend of electronic and acoustic music, which can be heard on albums like “The Road To St Ives”, “A Biography of Reverend Absalom Dwe”, and “Private City”, his most-sold album. In October 2003, he made his first solo trip to India. John Taylor was his duo and he toured China in 1997. He continues to perform throughout Europe and beyond. He is also a member of a duo with Karin Krog, who uses a variety keyboards and electronics – (check out “Bluesand” on Karin’s Meantime Records label). John Taylor, Chris Laurence, and John Marshall are still one of the most distinct European small bands. They performed at the Macau Festival in November 2003 and then played in Poland in December. Over the years, Surman has been a prolific recording artist for ECM. In the 1990s, Surman released solo albums as well as recordings with the Brass Project (the English quartet featuring Taylor, Laurence, and Marshall) and the Nordic Quartet. He also appeared on two albums with Tony Oxley and Gary Peacock, as well as on Thimar with Anouar Brahem, Dave Holland, and Tony Oxley. Surman’s output from 1999 to 2002 featured film scores for Raphael Nadjari’s films ‘The Shade’ and ‘Apartment 5c’. Mk2 editions recently released ‘Apartment 5c” on DVD. Jack Dejohnette and Surman have been collaborating as a duo since 2000. ECM released two albums – the first, ‘Invisible Nature,’ which was recorded live at the Tampere and Berlin Jazz Festivals, and the second, ‘Free and Equal, in which Surman and London Brass, a 10 piece chamber ensemble, perform in a live concert at London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall. Red Byrd commissioned Surman’s motet ‘Under the Shadow’ in December 2002. It was broadcast on BBC Radio 3. Surman has been the ‘Composer In Association’ for the Sarum Chamber Orchestra over the past three years. This professional orchestra is based in Salisbury UK. They performed Howard Moody’s transcription of “Road to St. Ives” in 2002. The Orchestra was joined in 2003 by a chorus of voices from Salisbury schools for the first performance Surman’s “In All Weathers” John’s new composition will be premiered in Salisbury City Hall on January 30, 2004. “Ultimate Voyage” is a piece for orchestra, piano, and saxophone. JohnSurman is a regular pollwinner. He was awarded the Bird Award at North Sea Jazz Festival in 1989 and the Wire Award for his services to British jazz. In 1997, he was awarded an Honourary Doctorate of Music from Plymouth University. The BBC also voted him the ‘Instrumentalists of the Year’ 2002. Surman’s music transcends all boundaries. While Surman is a huge jazz fan, he also loves the melodic qualities and rhythms of English folk music. “If you look back at what made me interested in music, it was the music I heard before I came across jazz.” Surman’s art has a surprising and enduring appeal. It is the juxtaposition of simple, haunting melodies, rich orchestral textures, and intense improvisation. Visit

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