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John Surman Flashpoint: NDR Jazz Workshop – April ‘69 Review

Album. Released 2011.  

BBC Review

As a snapshot of deep 60s jazz, British or otherwise, this is 100% gold.

Daniel Spicer 2011

In 2005, Cuneiform jolted jazz aficionados by releasing Way Back When, a lost session from October 1969 led by heavyweight UK baritone and soprano saxophonist John Surman. This latest discovery is even more exciting, capturing a performance from six months earlier, recorded in a Hamburg TV studio. Flashpoint delves beyond Way Back When’s electric-Miles stylings to reveal Surman’s hard-bop roots.

For fans of 60s Brit-jazz, the band is an absolute dream team featuring the era’s most vibrant players: Alan Skidmore and Ronnie Scott on tenor saxophones, the late Mike Osborne on alto, as well as Canadian trumpeter Kenny Wheeler, South African bassist Harry Miller and the criminally under-appreciated drummer Alan Jackson. They provide a big band heft that gives themes like Surman’s Western-tinged Mayflower an orchestral lushness.

Unsurprisingly, there’s a post-Coltrane feel to much of the session – not just in Surman’s scalding soprano solos, but also in the arrangements: Mayflower’s modal lope and Once Upon a Time’s light-footed waltz owe much to the mid-period work of the influential saxophonist. For the most part, though – and notwithstanding a fairly way-out parp and whinny solo from trombonist Malcolm Griffiths – Surman et al avoid the radical free-jazz tactics that Coltrane embraced in his later years, and which were very much in vogue by the time of this session, two years after his death. That said, the undeniable highlight here is the title-track, a Surman original that begins with a coruscating wall of free-blowing (prefiguring his more experimental work with The Trio) before quickly settling into a maniacally up-tempo hard-bop belter, providing a framework for furious contributions from Osborne and Skidmore that conclusively steal the day.

The clincher is the inclusion of a DVD, which presents the original German TV show from which the cuts are taken. Clear, crisp, black-and-white footage brings the date vividly to life, Surman a long-haired 24-year-old energetically throwing himself into his solos. It offers a rare chance to witness the eyes-tight-shut intensity of Osborne, and Skidmore’s verdant mop-top is quite a sight too. As a snapshot of deep 60s jazz, British or otherwise, this is 100% gold.

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