John Surman – Flashpoint: NDR Jazz Workshop, April 1969 – Cuneiform Records RUNE 315/316 – CD (Mono): 40:38 + DVD (4:3 B&W, PCM Mono): 46:58 ****1/2:
(John Surman – soprano saxophone, baritone saxophone; Alan Skidmore – tenor saxophone, flute; Ronnie Scott – tenor saxophone, Mike Osborne – alto saxophone; Malcolm Griffiths – trombone; Eich Kleinschuster – trombone; Kenny Wheeler – trumpet, flugelhorn; Fritz Pauer – piano; Harry Miller – bass; Alan Jackson – bass)
Jazz first arrived in Great Britain shortly after World War I. By the 1960s there was a burgeoning jazz scene in England. However, the musical culture was not conducive to these artists. British rock musicians usurped American blues and reintroduced it a culture somewhat unaware of its origins. Those musicians looking to break out of this mold struggled for commercial exposure. The BBC was the only sanctuary for jazz artists with original material. Most of these players made a living backing American jazz stars on tour in England.
John Surman has been challenging the boundaries of modern jazz for forty five years. His prodigious talent on woodwinds (clarinet, soprano and baritone saxophone) provided him an opportunity to record seven solo albums between 1968 and 1974. His stellar reputation caught the attention of luminaries including John McLaughlin, Chick Corea and Dave Holland. These collaborations added to his stature. In 1969, Surman taped a session for the NDR Jazz Workshop in Hamburg, Germany.
John Surman’s Flashpoint: NDR Jazz Workshop, April 1969 is an incisive glance into the creative eminence of this formative musician. This CD & DVD documents a complex five song performance by a complex aggregation of ten skilled musicians. Recorded in mono, the cream of the late sixties “Brit-jazz” was united with two equally adept Austrian band members. The set opens with a Coltrane-esque original composition, “Mayflower”. With a rhythm section (piano, bass and drums) that recalls the early sixties Trane structure, Surman explodes on soprano with a blazing solo that is complicated in its Eastern motifs. Fritz Pauer contributes an elegant solo on piano that leads seamlessly into the layered chorus of reeds and woodwinds. “Once Upon A Time” relies on a breezy waltz time and crisp flugelhorn runs by Kenny Wheeler. Alan Skidmore ( a mainstay of the local jazz scene) offers an incendiary tenor saxophone solo.
A hard bop piece (“Puzzle”) by trombonist Eric Kleinschister has an improvisational feel as both he and Malcolm Griffiths solo with flair. The complex horn arrangements underscore the harmonic structures of the track. Another band member’s (Pauer) contribution, “Gratuliere”, highlights the indelible precision of Surman’s touch on soprano. Several of the players also get the spotlight, especially Harry Miller on double bass. The finale is an exploration of free form experimentation. After a barrage of animated, discordance, a trio of saxophones dissects the melody with a relentless fevered pitch.
Despite the simple mono recording, the sound is excellent. The copious horn section is crisp. The tone is never dense and the separation is discernible. The soprano saxophone, never easy to record, is piercing but not shrill. The DVD (shot in black and white) has a factual unobtrusive style. The reserved nature of European television is captured as camera operators in shirts and ties casually move around the sound stage. There are small intro segments (not always perceptible) that give the viewer brief insights into a recording session. Cuneiform Records has unearthed a hidden treasure of British jazz.
(Reminded me of the B&W videos of the Jazz Icons series we reviewed before, which also came from European TV stations…Ed.)
Disc One (CD): Mayflower; Once Upon A Time; Puzzle; Gratuliere; Flashpoint
Disc Two (DVD) Mayflower; Once Upon A Time; Puzzle; Gratuliere; Flashpoint
— Robbie Gerson