Don’t know about you but I refer to All Music Guide all the time. I’m well aware that with so many recordings coming out it is extremely difficult to get editorial content on every record whether new or old. I’ll try to fill in some cracks with these little reviews. Well… Not so little.
Alan Skidmore / Mike Osborne / John Surman – S.O.S. – Ogun – OG 400 (OGCD 019)
A couple weeks ago, BYOV listened to a Barre Phillips recording called Mountainscapes released by ECM in 1976. Comments were made regarding the use of synthesizers in the music and how they enhanced the performance rather than cheesed it up. This was certainly not the gimmicky, noodle-y nonsense that pervaded during the 1970s.
There were many synth practitioners and innovators of note during the time period (Roger Powell, anyone?) but only a few real masters in the improvised music settings. Sun Ra, Herbie Hancock, Dr. Patrick Gleeson, and Joe Zawinul all immediately sprung to my mind. These sonic experimenters adopted the technology very early and advanced its use so far that their names have become synonymous with synthesizers (making their returns to acoustic instruments monumental occasions in some cases).
Another synth disciple was featured on Mountainscapes, British reed player John Surman. Surman had been known primarily for his virtuosic talents on baritone and soprano sax, bass clarinet, and various recorders. He had garnered acclaim initially as a soloist in the Mike Westbrook Concert Band, a progressive large ensemble that was a breeding group for the British avant-garde. Surman released a handful of ensemble recordings on DERAM before he really broke out with The Trio – the popular ensemble that featured the American expat rhythm section of bassist Barre Phillips and drummer Stu Martin (definitely check out their two records on Dawn).
Surman’s first foray with synths and overdubbing came in September 1972 on his solo recording, Westering Home (Island, HELP 10). Surman played all instruments (baritone and soprano sax, bass clarinet, piano, recorders, synths) and, with the help of overdubbing, made an extremely personal and introspective work that stands apart from his free blowing earlier material.
About a year after recording the 1973 Antilles release Morning Glory (a more jazz/rock fusion record featuring Terje Rypdal), Surman travelled to the US and recorded a duo performance with his former drummer from the Trio and fellow synth experimenter Martin. The music made on Live at Woodstock Town Hall (Dawn, DNLS 3072) was recorded in the Spring of 1974 and had a more driving, unhinged feel than the previous solo record. Added drums seem to have that effect. Dark, pulsating synths and distorted soprano sax were the call of the day making this a much more aggressive and experimental record. One tune was even anointed “Master of Disaster.” Go figure.
Okay, okay… S.O.S. The members of the group were not strangers when they coalesced. Alan Skidmore, Mike Osborne, and Surman (acronym S.O.S. – duh…) had played together in numerous situations, most notably with the Mike Westbrook Concert Band as far back as 1962. The mid to late ‘60s saw collaborations between the saxophonists on records under each other’s leadership and in the Chris McGregor Brotherhood of Breath (more on that very soon).
Skidmore and Osborne came with high pedigrees, too. Skidmore was an award winning British tenor player who had fruitful journeys alongside British blues artists John Mayall, Georgie Fame, and Alexis Korner along with leading ensembles performing and recording his own Coltrane inspired progressive jazz. Osborne was known for his aggressive alto playing and his very close association with the progressive South African expats, most notably bassist Harry Miller and drummer Louis Moholo.
S.O.S. originally came together in April 1973. The group was the first improvising saxophone ensemble, beating both ROVA and World Saxophone Ensemble to the punch. Their first live performance was in Brussels that October and was followed by a month long tour of Italy. Over the next year, S.O.S. premiered in London at the 100 Club (April 1974), appeared on BBC Radio, and performed in concert at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. The group’s major coup occurred when they were commissioned to write music for American choreographer Carolyn Carlson for her “Sablier Prison” ballet in June 1974 at the Paris Opéra.
It took nearly a year and a half before the group decided to record. The decision was made while on tour in Scotland in November 1974. The recording would come out on Ogun Records, the then young London based label created by Harry Miller and his wife Hazel Miller. Osborne had already recorded a trio session for Ogun in 1974 that featured Miller and Moholo (Border Crossing, OG 300).
Right after the New Year, Surman jumped into Griffout Studios with label producer and engineer Keith Beal. The sessions on January 2 and 3 laid down much of the electronic instrumentation featured on the recording. The trio recorded together at Saturn Studios in Worthing, England from February 9 to 11 with Dave Ruffell as engineer. All the additional instruments were added during these sessions
Enough of the damn history lesson! What the hell does it sound like?
The proclamatory “Country Dance” opens the record with everyone on their sax: Skidmore on tenor, Osborne on alto, and Surman on soprano. The tune sounds like a medieval folk fanfare followed by a jig. Sorta like herald trumpets announcing the approach of royalty followed by a renaissance fair barn dance throw down. There was definitely some interest in early Anglo Saxon music, especially from Surman, who recorded a fair bit of this type of thing later on. The “medieval” aspect of the music seems due to the musician’s use of early polyphonic techniques, most obviously counterpoint and hocketing. There are builds and breakdowns that allow for all three to solo before they join together for a final statement of the theme.
A low, dark electronic hum and arpeggiating synth lead into “Wherever I Am.” Kind of has the Nintendo evil castle vibe (In the best way). Haunting and tense for the first couple moments until the synths fade and a Surman keyboard ostinato takes over while Skidmore plays a skittering but effective drum set. Osborne lets fly with some off the cuff, high-pitched alto work. The sax is the real highlight here. Osborne rides freely over what has become a modal, fusion tune with bits and pieces of ring-modulated keyboards wafting by. Insert corny bird through the clouds imagery. Listen below.