Jazz legend John Surman on a well-travelled career and why he's angry about Brexit

As UK legend John Surman gets ready to play at Cork’s jazz fest, he tells Philip Watson about his well-travelled career and why he’s so angry about Brexit.

Jazz legend John Surman on a well-travelled career and why he's angry about Brexit

As UK legend John Surman gets ready to play at Cork’s jazz fest, he tells Philip Watson about his well-travelled career and why he’s so angry about Brexit.

ENGLISH saxophonist and clarinettist John Surman lives half an hour outside the Norwegian capital Oslo, in a place that he says is “ten minutes to the fjord to swim and 30 minutes to the mountains to ski”.

Born in a Devon village on the granite uplands of Dartmoor near the border with Cornwall, Surman is justly celebrated as one of the most creative and consistently original European musicians working broadly within the resolutely urban genre of jazz. He was also a key member of the visionary London music scene of the 1960s. Yet Surman has always been drawn to the music, landscapes and traditions of more rustic settings; living close to the countryside suits him.

“I have definitely come to the conclusion that I’m a rural person,” he says via FaceTime from the home he shares with his long-term partner, Norwegian jazz singer Karin Krog. “A lot of jazz musicians enjoy the hustle and bustle of New York – like many artists, they feel inspired by all the activity. But all that just tires me out.

"I like nature, fresh air, walking in the country, swimming outdoors, birdsong.”

If this makes Surman sound more like a leather-sandalled folkie than some sharp-suited beatnik, then the impression is often accentuated by his very down-to-earth personality and appearance. Surman still has the broad flat vowels of his West Country burr, he has long worn a moustache and chin-beard, and he is a fine fellow of strong and sturdy build — affable, enthusiastic and warm.


There has always been a keen sense of the bucolic in his music, too. While he made his name in the experimental 1960s as a baritone and soprano saxophonist of immense fire and fervour — listen to his spirited contributions, for example, to English jazz guitarist John McLaughlin’s epochal 1969 recording Extrapolation — Surman is equally drawn to the rhythms, melodies and mysteries of folk music, whatever its form and wherever it may be found.

The sounds he can produce from a soaring soprano saxophone or rumbling bass clarinet have a sonorous beauty, a lyrical, poetic and protean quality that seems to suit so many settings. In an unparalleled career of 50 years or more, Surman has worked with a wide world of indigenous musicians, from Britain to Brazil, South Africa, Tunisia, India, Scandinavia and Eastern Europe.

“Maybe I’m still searching for something, but I’m curious about music, and I like different contexts and being able to speak different musical dialects,” he says.

“It doesn’t matter where we come from, or whatever we are, there are always invisible threads that connect us.”

Surman has also written music for choirs, orchestras, string quartets, brass ensembles, dance companies and silent films, experimented since the early 1970s with electronics, and even worked with English drum’n’ bass duo Spring Heel Jack.

Yet you only have to look at the titles of some of his more than 40 albums as leader or co-leader to find the heart and soul of his thrillingly diverse music: not just Invisible Threads but Invisible Nature, Proverbs and Songs, Westering Home, and Such Winters of Memory.

One of those connections is to Ireland. Not only did Surman grow up singing Irish airs, ballads and laments in the National Songbook, a collection of British and Irish folk songs first published in 1906, but he has formed a wider relationship to Celtic music, from Scotland to Brittany to his native Devon and Cornwall.

“The people and musics on the fringes of the Atlantic have a lot in common,” he says. “My family’s been in that part of the world for centuries; that Celtic blood is in me somewhere.”


Later this month Surman will have an opportunity to further honour such roots; he is coming to Ireland to play a special concert at Triskel Christchurch as part of this year’s Guinness Cork Jazz Festival.

In an event that marks two major milestones — Surman’s 75th birthday and the 50th anniversary of ECM, the acclaimed German record label he has been closely associated with since the mid-70s — Surman and Norwegian pianist Vigleik Storaas will present a programme of original compositions that draw upon many of Surman’s interests and influences, from folk themes to chamber music to open improvisation.

“I’ve played with Vigleik off and on for 20 years or more, and the music we make together is like a conversation,” says Surman. “It’s direct and extremely flexible. You’re reacting one to the other in real time, and I think that’s clear to the listener as well.”

Another common thread, one that Surman has followed steadfastly since the late ’60s when he first started to live and work on the continent, is the creation of a very European aesthetic.

Surman’s genial, romantic and open-minded Englishness is a crucial part of his musical make-up and appeal, yet he has never seen any contradiction in looking out and integrating. In fact, he has been a pivotal force in forging a jazz sound and sensibility that is highly personal yet wholly and identifiably European – so much so that he was once described as the “Common Market Jazz Man”.

I ask him if he has any thoughts on Brexit.

“Yes, I do. I’m absolutely furious. I am livid,” he replies, quick as a flash, leaning forwards.

“For me the EU was about bonding, about assimilating and being together, about creating a Europe at peace.” Surman puts his hands together and interlocks his fingers. “So Brexit is a total disaster and I’m really angry.”

He pauses. “Did I get that message across?”

He did: clearly, succinctly, passionately and eloquently. Much like John Surman’s music itself.

John Surman with Vigleik Storaas is on Saturday, October 26, at 8pm as part of the Triskel ECM Weekend at Guinness Cork Jazz Festival

Philip Watson's jazz fest selections

Fred Hersch Trio (Everyman, Sunday 27, 8pm):

In a headliners programme that is a bit thin on jazz diversity, contemporary relevance and world-class quality, this agile and exemplary trio — led by an American pianist and composer of consummate intelligence, sensitivity and range — stands out as a stunning exception.

Airelle Besson, Sebastian Sternal and Jonas Burgwinkel Trio (Triskel Christchurch, Sunday 27, 2.30pm):

Final date in a short Music Network tour featuring a stellar collaboration between French trumpeter Besson and German keyboardist and drummer Sternal and Burgwinkel.

Expect offbeat grooves, strong solos, gentle lyricism and lively melodies.

Kurt Elling (Cork City Hall, Saturday 26, 8pm):

Elling is the doyen of modern male jazz singers and here the elegant Chicago-born baritone presents ‘A Century of Heroes’, a concert paying personal tribute to vocalists that range from Louis Armstrong to Nat King Cole, Jon Hendricks and Nancy Wilson.

Hypnotic Brass Ensemble (Cyprus Avenue, Saturday 26, 2pm and 7pm):

There are plenty of brass bands firing up this year’s festival, but “the bad boys of jazz”, also from Chicago, are undisputed heavyweight champions. An energetic ensemble of seven sons of jazz trumpeter Phil Cohran, HBE sparks an irresistible mix of jazz, hip-hop, funk, soul, rock and more. The matinee show is open to all ages.

Umbra (Green Room at Cork Opera House, Saturday 26, midnight):

Vibrant young Irish quintet led by Chris Guilfoyle that skilfully blends both the rigour and freedom of jazz with such loose-fitting influences as metal, punk, IDM and electronica.

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