Monday, June 27, 2011

Records That AMG Forgot - S.O.S. - S/T - 1975

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.

“Chordary” features the horns introducing the theme together with Surman on bass clarinet. Slow paced and slightly sinister. This is a harmonic gem as the saxes anchor the melody while Surman kinda plays around it, creating tension and release with his loose approach. There are some overdubbed bells that must intended to give a “mystical” vibe. ‘70s pretensions but I’m buying. About two thirds through, the baritone sax makes its first appearance. One of my favorite instrumental voices - Surman’s bari. He has a very human sound, especially in higher registers. The track fades on the bari.

Surman leads with a bass clarinet bass line on “Where’s Junior.” Osborne and Skidmore play a heroic, ascending unison melody until Osborne joins Surman in rhythmic and harmonic duty to allow Skidmore a tenor feature. The piece is put together simply with a basic rhythmic sequence that is passed and/or augmented by whomever isn’t soloing. Skidmore’s solo is a beaut, a bouncing, sheets of sound monster, followed by Osborne until they regroup on the sequence to finish. Very effective. Listen below.

“Cycle Motion” is a winding composition with cyclonic flourishes as horns break off from an ascending pattern that speeds and slows. Alto, tenor, and bass clarinet. The piece’s harmonic structure is a little more interesting. The horns play tight on the repeating pattern but make intriguing tones on the more wailing sections as they play a rich, descending line. The horns end up screaming and fading while a Moog washes in with a Bach-fugue-played-by-Caribbean-steel-band flavor.

“Ist” starts off with the horns in unison while a low electric keyboard drones ominously underneath. The horns then break off into a stately melody while bass clarinet adds a pedal point. The piece begins to speed up as the saxes pick up the pace and the bass clarinet the bass part. Skidmore then takes a flying solo that ranges over the breadth of the horn until he restates the theme thus signaling Osborne to jump in. The altoist’s shrill tone is very reminiscent of Jackie McLean on this solo. The group comes together for a poignant ending and melody statement over bass clarinet pedal.

“1st” fades directly into “Goliath,” a more uplifting tune. Osborne solos over a fuzzy, Moog bass progression that really draws him skyward. I’m hearing Albert Ayler over “Bladerunner” era Vangelis. Skidmore is on drums once again, really banging ‘em.

“Calypso” starts out with a sequencer building a tense repetitive theme with a hint of Moog bass. I really love this stuff. Sounds like a nature program soundtrack from the ‘70s. Slow-mo of a chameleon catching a mayfly… A shrill pattern develops. The horns start blowing over with a delay and some distortion for a lonely, decaying effect. They finally come together for a very harmonically tart and slow melody. Individually, they keep throwing in stabs that fade into the either. Surman takes an eerie solo on bass clarinet developing into nuttiness including some screams and howls. This is definitely the piece de resistance of the album. Listen below.

Overall, the album is kind of a hodge podge. There are some very rehearsed but flexible horn arrangements that allow for improvisation. The electronic bits are never too heavy handed, maybe a bit dated but seem to fit here (funny how I kept coming back to Vangelis on this listen, while this record predates his fantastically synthetic film scoring). I understand that S.O.S. performances prior to recording were heavy-duty affairs, as it was full out woodwind, thick ensemble pieces. The electronics add space to the compositions and an almost cinematic kind of ambience. I really enjoy the record not as a technical masterpiece but more as an aesthetic experiment.

So maybe this isn’t on par with other improv based records that feature synths and electronics. The use of synths here was not to define but rather to enhance the sound of the recording. The synths and effects aren’t even used on every track. This was certainly early in Surman’s electronic experiments.

Where are they now? S.O.S. broke up soon after the recording. Osborne was already showing signs of fatigue from a fast lifestyle and mental illness that would soon be diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic. His playing career ended in 1982. Osborne passed away on September 19, 2007 of lung cancer. Skidmore continued his career playing on pop records (Walker Brothers, Kate Bush, etc.) and his own more progressive jazz projects. He later began performing with African musicians. Surman became one of ECM’s most prolific artists and continues to tour heavily. His further experiments with synthesizers and overdubbing are very well documented.

CD reissue by Ogun was released in 2006. Still available.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

BYOV - Meeting #1

Also the first post, incidentally.

So this will be the official online home for BYOV (Bring Your Own Vinyl).
I decided to start this listening group to provide source for knowledge building and a fun hang. Nice of me, huh? Actually, the group’s success is entirely dependent on folks (like you) coming to meetings and sharing your favorite music. Sounds like a gas, right?

The first meeting was on June 5th at Barbés in Park Slope, Brooklyn. I have to admit being a little antsy when only a few people were hanging at 3pm. I forgot I live in NYC for a sec. Give ‘em 15. I think we had a great group show up with some fantastic music selections.

Onto the show. The initial two themes for this meeting were the following:

a) Start at the bottom… Who are your favorite low voices? Bass players, tuba virtuosos, etc.
b) He/she did what!?! Know a performer that’s done something completely out of the ordinary? Change genres? Instruments? Genders?

So here’s a list of the selections that were brought in along with links to sound and places to find ‘em.

1. Keith Jarrett – “Mortgage On My Soul” from Birth (Atlantic, SD 1612)

Presented by Me – Theme: Both - LP

I picked this track because it applied to both themes. Birth is one of three recordings that emerged from a particularly fruitful July 1971 with his recently formed American Quartet, featuring Dewey Redman (reeds), Charlie Haden (bass), and Paul Motian (drums). Of course, Haden is one of the greatest bass players in jazz history. But what the hell was he doing with a wah-wah pedal?

I remember buying this record when I was 17 or 18 at the Record Exchange in Kansas City. Being more or less a jazz novice, I knew that I had to give Jarrett a listen. He was supposed to be heavy, right? This may have been the cheapest in the bin plus it had some killer artwork. Psychedelic baby burps? Count me in. I was coming to jazz via hip-hop and “Mortgage” had a particular grab on me.

Buy here

2. Barre Phillips – “Mountainscape, I” – from Mountainscapes (ECM, 1076)

Presented by Ben Monder – Theme: LV - LP

Oh man… Told Ben that I had nearly brought this one myself. This 1976 ECM release is an amazing blend of acoustic and electronic instrumentation. Phillips is an American born bassist who left to find greener pastures and a more receptive audience in Europe. His most frequent collaborators turned out to be the British reed/synthesizer master John Surman and another ex-pat drummer/synth guru Stu Martin, who both appear here. These three originally came together as a trio called, well, the Trio.

The thing that is most striking about this recording is the fact the synthesizers don’t date the work or dominate the proceedings. They sound natural in the development of the overall sound. Large credit should be given to experimental synth maven Dieter Feichtner.

We discussed the work of Stu Martin a little. There isn’t much info available about him or his short career. His work with Surman and Michel Portal is great. I also see that there is a trio recording on the French Marge label entitled Sunrise from 1979. More info on Stu would be appreciated.

This record received an ovation, btw.

Buy here

3. Eva Taylor w/ Clarence Williams’ Blue 5 - “Mandy Make Up Your Mind” (Okeh, 40260)

Presented by David Adler – Theme: Both - CD

“Is that Wynton?” Some laughs. Great tune, great singer… Features the lovely trumpet of Louis Armstrong. Overall this is a nice trad jazz recording from December 17, 1924. But that isn’t reason it was brought in. This track also features the legendary reeds virtuoso Sidney Bechet. He isn’t playing his customary soprano sax or even a clarinet. He solos on an instrument called the Sarrusophone.

David went on to explain the particulars. Evidently, Bechet, being a master at many wind instruments, decided to try something new. He came across this behemoth of a horn in a music shop before this recording. The Sarrusophone is a woodwind instrument named after French bandmaster Pierre-Auguste Sarrus. The instrument was intended to be a louder replacement for the oboe or bassoon in outdoor bands. The fingering is close to that of a sax, thus Bechet was an easy study.

So… Here we are listening to this lovely track when this tuba meets dump truck sound comes in. Huh? So back to the story… Bechet makes this recording and decides that he doesn’t like the track or the horn. So not only does he quickly get rid of the horn but also denies that he ever played it or even appeared on the track.

This track was a real winner and a total surprise. Also got us contemplating strange low voiced instruments and contemporary players. Scott Robinson, Anthony Braxton, J.D. Parran, Roscoe Mitchell! Please take a bow.

Buy here

4. Billy Higgins - “Blues Tinge” – Which Way Is East (ECM, 1878)

Presented by Jerome Sabbagh – Theme: HDW? - CD

This was a blindfold test for the group. I can tell you that no one got it right. Apparently, Monder had guessed Elvin Jones on a previous listen.
Now we know what it sounds like when a fantastic drummer plays the guitar. Higgins appears on what seems to have been a very laid back session with saxophonist Charles Lloyd with guitar and the blues.

Not that he’s the greatest vocalist or guitarist of all time but rhythmically there wasn’t anyone that could have delivered the song more naturally. Pretty interesting to hear. BTW, there is a Elvin Jones recording where he plays guitar – Elvin Jones/Jimmy Garrison’s Heavy Sounds on Impulse!. Also worth a listen.

Buy here

5. Jimmie Rodgers & Louis Armstrong – “Blue Yodel #9”

Presented by Oran Etkin – Theme: HDW? - CD

Early fusion? I guess you could call it that. I’m happy that Oran brought this in. Very interesting how closely related the blues and country music really are.

Rodgers was a fantastic country guitarist and vocalist (yodeler). This session with Louis Armstrong and pianist Lil Hardin was put together in July 1930. The form is extremely loose. Oran points out that all the members were willing to let measures slide in order to extend phrases, etc. A rambling tune in the American tradition, huh?

Armstrong’s solo is a work of minimalist beauty, too. Far from his usual bravado.

Buy here

6. Swamp Dogg – “The Other Man” – You Ain’t Never Too Old To Boogie (DJM, 20476)

Presented by Zak Shelby-Syszko – Theme: HDW? – MP3

Born Jerry Williams, Swamp Dogg has been a musical gypsy his entire career. Jumping from genre to genre and label to label. He finally began his own label to release his particularly unusual records. Musically, he has been associated primarily with soul but, as this particular selection proves, Swamp can play whatever.

Swamp grew up listening to country music. The genre creeps into this rockabilly, country swing tune from 1976. Honky tonk guitar and driving drums. Really fun.

Buy here

7. Swamp Dogg – “Synthetic World” – Total Destruction of Your Mind (Canyon Records, LP-7706)

Presented by Mark Jacobson – Theme: HDW? – MP3

Talk of Swamp Dogg led to another track from an iPod. Ugh. Kidding…

“Synthetic World” is what many refer to as Swamp’s “hit”. Swamp complains about a “world that is plastic.” Worries about falseness, pollution, psychedelic music… Call him old fashioned and a little ridiculous but some fun shit. This came out in 1971.

“My patience is wearing thin…”

Buy here

8. Hermann Szobel – “Transcendental Floss” – Szobel (Arista, AL 4058)

Presented by Richard Gehr – Theme: HDW? – CD

Whoa… Richard described it as “a distillation of all fusion” then added, “I think it is pretty awesome…”

Brief story. 18 year old, Austrian nephew of famed concert promoter Bill Graham records his one and only record for Arista. He was a piano prodigy influenced by Jarrett and Martial Solal. He puts out the record and then has a nervous breakdown. Szobel completely disappears never to be heard from again. Uh… Read some more on the guy this Myspace tribute site.

What the hell is “the Roberta Flack thing”? Weird.

Sounds like a fusion of 1976. Mish mash ideas with segued sections. Overcomplicated piano over aggressively reverbed space drums. Many wondered who the sax player was. A guess was Steve Grossman. I thought it sounded a lot like Gato Barbieri. Dude named Vadim Vyadro. Breakdowns leading to contemplative piano ruminations and sax slinkiness. Zappa-ish toward the end where Dave Samuels’ (a name we recognize!) marimba comes in.

Ebay that sucker!

9. Sam Newsome – “Blue Beijing” – Blue Soliloquy (CD Baby)

Presented by Jim Macnie – HDW? – CD

Brilliant example of physical command of body and instrument. Sam Newsome is a fabulous saxophonist that has been focusing on the soprano for over 15 years. His command of the horn is well known.

“Blue Beijing” is an exercise in circular breathing and pattern in a solo setting. The Eastern flavor is a premise for his arpeggiating figures that run up and down the length of the horn. His speed increases as the figures get more complex and ends up with some extremely highly blown altissimo notes.

Give his blog a read. Fascinating study on this difficult instrument.

Buy here

10. The Stoner (Nils Berg) – “Mitt svenska hjärta” – Hat Music (Hoob Jazz)

Presented by Jeremy Udden – LV – CD

The Stoner is a band led by the Swedish saxophonist/bass clarinetist Nils Berg. Jeremy tells us that Berg is his favorite bass clarinetist.

The tune is from a live recording of the band. The low fi quality is cool as it provides an interesting vibe to the piece. There is also an airiness in the music as Berg and the piano player seem to float in the space. Beautiful piece of music.

Buy and listen

Amazon links will have sound samples where YouTube couldn't find. Hope to make this a little more solid soon.

Thanks again to all of you that came, presented, and listened! Hope to see some more folks on July the 10th!

Love to hear comments and thoughts.