Interview with John Surman

IMG_5728British saxophonist and composer John Surman made a couple of rare appearances in the U.S. this summer fronting an all-star quartet with John Abercrombie, Drew Gress and Jack DeJohnette, the same group of heavy hitters on his latest release, Brewster’s Rooster (ECM).  The 65 year-old Surman spent an afternoon in Washington D.C. talking about the obstacles that European musicians face in America, the recession and subsidies, his approach to composition and improvisation, and one of his worst saxophone nightmares.

This is your first time in the U.S. with your own band. Why did it take so long?

This may be a complicated story, but in truth it’s not that easy to work in America as a European musician. Work permits are difficult to obtain. You have to prove that there’s something very special about you, which perhaps after 40 years in the business is not difficult for me. But there are stumbling blocks. It costs money and the whole business of working in the states depends on having a persona in America. And quite frankly, I’ve singularly failed to get that persona for one reason or another.

Is that a conscious choice?

Not at all.  I’ve spent much of my working life working with American musicians, but always in Europe. As John Abercrombie said many years ago, “I’m a commuter; I live in America but I work in Europe.” And I’ve always worked in Europe so there’s not been a lot of temptation to work in America. I did, at one point, after my colleagues John McLaughlin and Dave Holland came over here in the late ‘60s, it crossed my mind and I stayed for a while in Woodstock, not far from Jack [DeJohnette].  And I did a few gigs with Jack’s band but he said there’s not much happening here. And then work came up in Europe and I went back and I had a house and then a wife and a family.

You are living in Oslo now?

I live in Oslo now for family reasons, just for the last 5 years. Most of my life I’ve lived in England.


What’s the difference living in Oslo in terms of quality of life?

Between Norway and England? It’s further north so the difference is climatic, as much as anything. And it’s a little more expensive to live there—eating out and drinking out and all that. But of course there are lots of social benefits.

Are you able to take advantage of their artist subsidies, or is that only for citizens?

Theoretically, I will be. That’s a very important part of their music process. The investment in Norwegian artists is vital to their culture.

Were you able to get subsidies from the British Council?

It can happen. The British Council does support certain activities and I’ve benefitted from that, but not in the U.S., mainly because the British Council is promoting the English language. So you’re tending to get opportunities to work in places like Eastern Europe: Russia, Ukraine, Romania, but not in the U.S.

To what extent do subsidies and government support for the arts impact the quality of the music itself?

I’ll be honest with you; I share your doubts. I think it slants the market a bit. I think you’ll find, for example, in Europe that certain German musicians are rather upset at the fact that their Norwegian colleagues can work at clubs in Germany and can afford to do so because they get travel assistance and they even get working grants for the group. So subsidies always create an imbalance. We won’t even talk about the common market and the agricultural policy and the anger between the British and the French about French agricultural subsidies, but all this political stuff is there in the music in the same way. It’s slanted.

In Norway, it doesn’t hurt that they have oil money. 

Listen, Norway changed when they discovered oil. Prior to that they were a country that relied on fishing and farming. It was not a rich country. They were the poor relation to Sweden. Now the boot is very firmly on the other foot.

There’s been such a strong music scene in Norway for the last 15 years. Is that a directly attributed to the money that’s now being set aside for the arts?

I think you have to point your finger at ECM Records for a lot of exposure that the Norwegian musicians had. Prior to Manfred’s excursions into Norway, Karin Krog—and I have to say I have a vested interest because Karin is what you would call my life partner, my wife—she was one of the few Norwegian jazz artists who had made it internationally.  But once Manfred came in and worked with Jan Garbarek and Terje Rypdal and Arild Andersen and Jon Christianson, it helped launch this wave of interest in Norwegian music.

The compositions on the new record, with the exception of two tracks, are all original. Were they written with these specific players in mind?

Some were and some weren’t. My thinking was that this was an opportunity to work with three musicians who were basically very experienced improvisers working on different projects with different people. So what I thought was necessary was to create a few pieces that would create an area to work in but wouldn’t be limiting. There’s no suggestion on my part that I’m trying to form a tight band with hot arrangements. I just wanted to come up with some things that would be inspirational and open enough that we could get together for an afternoon, look at a few pieces, pick out half a dozen of them that would work well and go ahead and do it.  So I wrote some stuff, “Hilltop Dancer,” “Brewster’s Rooster,” and “Counter Measures,” and then I picked a few pieces like “Burton” and “No Finesse” that I’ve used with a rhythm section and just said, “Let’s play.”

Did you produce the record? I don’t see a producer’s credit on it.


Basically, yes. Manfred was ill, I think he broke his arm just before the recording was made, and then when it came to the mixing he said if Jack is there, you and Jack might as well mix it. I’ve known Manfred for a good many years and I guess he trusted me [chuckles].

How does a project like this come about? Do you make a proposal to Manfred?

From my point of view it’s worked both ways over the years. Sometimes Manfred comes to me and says it’s about time we did another album. What do you feel like doing? In this case I was doing a recording with an organist Howard Moody called Rain in the Window. Manfred was there and he said maybe the next project should be done in New York, basically a jazz album. And I said yes, I’m ready for that. He asked me who I wanted, and I knew Jack was an obvious choice ‘cause we’ve been mates for a long time. And John I’ve known for a long time–toured and recorded with him a bit. Drew’s name came up because Jack said to me years ago that I’d like him and might want to use him sometime. I bumped into him a couple years ago at the London Jazz Festival, he was playing with Uri Caine and we were both doing projects with the BBC Concert Orchestra.

How would you describe the musical personality of each of these guys?

With Jack, I especially admire the fact that he’s extremely open to a wide variety of music. He’s adventurous and he has a broad palate of musical interests. The music can go anywhere with Jack.  I hear in John’s playing that same sort of curiosity, that mix of fusion and country blues and straightforward jazz. He has his own sound but I’m never quite sure what he’s going to do next, and I love that aspect of his playing. Drew is my newest friend. I hope he won’t be offended if I say his style of playing is more like Sam Jones, an older, digging-in kind of playing.

I think he’ll take it as a compliment.

It’s that kind of strong playing, the Ray Brown-Sam Jones school. Yet he’s got great arco technique and a sophisticated ear. There’s a lot about Drew I’m finding out. He’s a shy man but he’s a powerhouse to play with.

When it comes to composition, how much of your approach is discipline and how much is inspiration?

First, you get the inspiration, which may be big or may be small. Or you may get the deadline. Then comes the hard work. If we talk about some of the things I’ve done with string quintets where there’s a lot more writing than a quartet like this, then you can have the idea but you’ve still got to bash it out. You’ve got to form it and find a way to make it work. It’s a mixture of the two. You probably find the same as a journalist when you start to write something, the piece itself takes on a life of its own. So very often I find that if I’ve got a commission, the house is never cleaner than before I start. You do anything to avoid writing that first note because every blooming idea you come up with seems to be trivial. But in the end you start out with something where you say this is the best I can come up with. And once you get into it, then suddenly it takes on a life of its own.

How do you transition from avoiding to jumping in?

Horror, panic, fear, the danger of not actually coming up with it; It’s the brick wall technique, you just run up against it. If you’re going to write, you’ve just got to start. So you stall as long as you can but it comes to a point when either you’ve got to get on with it or it’s not gonna happen. I’m scared to death of not coming up with stuff, but I haven’t missed a deadline yet. If you’re a dreamer, the fantasies can go on for a long time. But it’s hardcore when you’ve got to put them down on paper. That’s why at school I was never that good at writing compositions. I always had great ideas but I never really managed to find time to get them down on paper, or my hand ached by the bottom of the second page.

We don’t live or work in isolation. The world goes on around us. Has the recession or the downturn in the record business had any impact on your music or your career?

I honestly think that this particular recession has yet to really bite in terms of the working process in Europe. I think we’re about to see it. We’ve bridged over it because the work was set up before the stuff happened at the beginning of the year. There have been one or two cancelations. I know some things have gone down but they mostly carried on. And in the summer months the festival circuit has kept things buoyant. But I think the cutbacks are going to happen when the autumn planning for next year starts.

How will musicians deal with that?

With difficulty. I think it will be tough. We spoke earlier about subsidies and the fact that some countries are subsidizing artists. It’s really going make a difference. If they continue to do it, then the non-subsidized folks are going to be in real trouble. So I think it will cause difficulties, though it hasn’t impinged on me a great deal, as yet.

What’s the best thing about playing the saxophone?

It’s a very vocal instrument. My introduction to music was singing as a choirboy. I was a boy soprano and a soloist. But when the voice changed I missed that.

Your favorite choral works?

Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. First time I heard that with full chorus and orchestra I must have been 8 or 9. I couldn’t sit still. I didn’t know what to do with myself.

So then your voice broke?

Yes, so I suspect it’s that vocal quality that I like about the saxophone. But I have to say I don’t think my choice of instrument was dictated in any way by any prior knowledge of what riches I would find there. I bought the clarinet because it was very cheap in a pawnshop and I’d heard some traditional jazz. I said that’s fun; I’ll get a clarinet. It was only seeing a baritone in a shop window next to an alto for 37 pounds, 50 shillings when I was 16 that led me to the saxophone.

Can you say what you liked about that baritone in the shop window?

It was big and golden and wonderful. I was privileged to interview Sonny Rollins some years ago and he shared the same story, when his uncle opened the case with   red velvet inside and then the golden horn. I’ve always has a passion for instruments because aesthetically I think they’ve beautiful; French horns harps, violins, they’re beautiful things to look at. So I picked up the baritone and got down to low C and my whole body vibrated and I said I want this.

Was there much music around your house?

Yes, my dad was an amateur pianist who would accompany singers in what they used to call concert parties. He loved to play and he could hack his way through some of the Beethoven sonatas. And the radio was on a lot, the basic classical music repertoire. The BBC was very pompous in those days; the announcers sounded like they wore black tie on the evening program. And you got the full symphony, not just a single movement.  Anyway, there was lots of music around, especially birthdays and Christmas always around the piano.

What was your first exposure to jazz?

That would have been the traditional jazz revival when I was about 15. So that would have been in about 1958 or ’59. And skiffle became quite popular on the radio at that time, and that really grabbed me.  I got the clarinet and I found my way to the local jazz club, which was on Friday nights in the Virginia House Temperance Hall. And I stood in the corner backstage and played along with the band until eventually after about a few months the clarinet player said come on out and play. And that was it.

Did you ever memorize solos or transcribe things?

No. I was never into copying, and I didn’t have the technique at the time to transcribe.

So when did you start composing?

I always wrote little pieces. But I didn’t really start until I was in London in college. At the music college the teaching was so dead and so hidebound and so full of rules that I was put off, scared to write because of breaking the rules. So composition emerged slowly. I was playing more at the beginning of my career than writing. I don’t think I got really into writing until the ‘70s.

How did you learn to improvise, and how would you teach someone to improvise?

You improvise by doing it. You play along with records. In my case, I just played things that I tried to fit in, rather than to play what anyone else played. So I would have begun with Armstrong’s Hot Five recordings. They’re not complex harmonically, so you’ve got time to find the right notes. For people who want to learn to improvise, I find it’s handy if you can play the instrument a bit first. But given that, it’s just to do it and not feel too hidebound by restrictions and rules. If you really want to improvise, I’m someone who advocates a lot of use of the ear, and you can refer to the paper afterwards.

We all know classical players who know their instruments inside and out and they can read flyspecks in front of them, but they don’t have a clue how to improvise.

And they get very tense and very nervous and they’re really awfully afraid of making a fool of themselves when you ask them to try. What I do is give them a different instrument. A recorder or a little keyboard or something, then you don’t have the fear of making a fool of yourself on this instrument that you’ve been practicing 8 hours a day. And then they can have fun with it and you say, now try it on your instrument.

Back to composition, when you’re working on a piece, how do you know when you’re done? Do you constantly revise or edit?

Well, one thing is when I get bored with it, then I think to myself, that’s enough, mate. But you can always tinker with these things. And if I have time, I’ll get to the point where it’s almost done and I’ll leave it, then come back to it later with fresh ears. Very often the process is more about combing out stuff than putting it in.

Do these ideas ever come to you fully formed?

In the jazz form you’re dealing with a sequence and sometimes I’ll get that. But if you want to turn it into a composition, there’s more to develop it. So up to a point, I can get a vision of what it might be. There’s an architectural feeling about a composition, but I don’t think I know what it is until I hear and see it.

Are you ever tempted to go back later and revise a work?

I’ve got boxes full of bits and pieces, which are the first source when it comes to writing the new thing; unfinished ideas, little bits that don’t seem to go anywhere, or things that were tossed away are all source material. So if I’m thinking, what the hell am I going to write now, I’ll dig around in the box. I’m a great keeper of scraps of paper from 40 years.

Do you ever hear music in your dreams?

I don’t really remember dreams very much except the horror things that wake me up in the middle of the night, like you’ve got to the gig and there’s no mouthpiece in your saxophone case.

Has that ever happened?

Not yet. But last night my baritone broke in the middle of the first set. These nightmares can occur. It was a rod that broke loose and a whole stack of keys lifted. So nothing would close from halfway down. Luckily my son was there and he plays the saxophone and discovered what the problem was. Happily, I had another instrument [soprano saxophone] with me.

What’s your general attitude towards practice?

It used to be very casual. When I was starting to play I rarely practiced. But that’s because I was playing all the time. If there were any places to play, I’d go there. But I find that I work out on the horns more than I used to. It’s a physical thing. When you’re in you 60s, your body doesn’t repair as easily. So if I’m out of practice in the embouchure, and if I have to play with powerful players seven or eight nights in a row and I’m not prepared, then I’ll be dealing with cuts and blood. So it’s a physical thing now.

Is there a British style of jazz?

I honestly don’t know. I’ve always felt that jazz, in a way, is about individuals. Let me try to codify this because this question comes up fairly frequently.  Let’s not be surprised that there are different styles. But most of the younger generation players that I hear now are really playing retro jazz from different eras, so I don’t hear a particular British-ness about it. I suspect that for players like John and maybe even Jack, the broadness of the scope of the European scene has enabled them to spread their wings. Maybe the openness of the European scene has been helpful to those American musicians who wanted to expand their horizons. Talking to my son, who’s a sound engineer for Scofield and works a lot in America, he thinks that American audiences tend to be a bit more conservative. Jazz is a little more in a box here. He thinks there’s more of a broader range in Europe. I don’t really know if there’s a British school. But I grew up on the English national songbook before I got into this fantastic American art form. And it was jazz music that liberated me, that gave me a wonderful opportunity to make music. So I think I’m a jazz musician, not a British jazz musician. I just play.

In what way did jazz liberate you?

A musical career in classical music would have been a straightjacket for me. But this gave me an opportunity to break all the rules and do all the things you weren’t supposed to do in music. It was jazz that gave this fantastic chance to find my own music. And it gave me a chance to be a composer, although I hate the word.


To me, Stravinsky is a composer. Bartok is a composer, not me.

Do you think it is human nature to break rules or to follow them?

[long pause] That’s a bloody good question. I honestly don’t know. Christ. I suppose when it’s convenient we follow the rules but if we don’t like them we break them [laughs]. It’s a blend. Sometimes I find that the rules are there for a damn good reason. They make living life possible, certain rules if you know what I mean. They save you a lot of time.

You’ve worked as both leader and sideman. What do you think makes a good leader?

I think vision and understanding of the people you’re working with. People like Gil [Evans], who I admired and had a wonderful time with, for me it wasn’t what he did on the bandstand, it was just that feeling of excitement that everyone had when Gil came because you respected Gil. If someone lost his wallet, Gil was the first one to reach into his pocket for money to help out. He looked after the musicians. He had a sense for who they were and he gave them the freedom to be themselves, and he also had a paternal thing about him too.  There are others who’ve ruled with a rod of iron, but the ones that I enjoyed working with were compassionate people.

And how would you describe your style of leading?

Loose [laughter]. I just try and lead by example.

Is there enough work for you?

I’m happy to say there is. I’ve never had a problem about work, but I’ve never wanted to work all the time. I’m not that kind of person. I’m not a workaholic at all. I find that I refresh better with breaks. I don’t like being on the road all the time. I did a lot of it when I was younger, touring in Europe constantly starting in the mid-60s, and then the 70s with the Paris Opera working in music and dance.  Into the ‘80s I did tours with Miroslav [Vitous] and Paul Bley. But now being on the road is harder, especially flying with your instruments and having them damaged.

Your record came out but you’re only doing two hits here in the U.S., in Washington and New York.

There are two issues there. First, Jack, John and Drew are busy. And I never intended for this to be a working band, not at all. I’m absolutely amazed that we’re doing these gigs. I thought we’d make the album and then do something at the London Jazz Festival. But to work like this with this quartet is a surprise.

Several times you’ve talked about how your music doesn’t always fit into a box. How have you resisted the temptation to conform, to fit yourself into a box? Wouldn’t it have been much easier?

Yeah, it would. There are so many terrible moves I’ve made, like with synthesizers.

Why was that a terrible move?

Because at the time I did it, the jazz people, particularly in Europe, didn’t want to know about synthesizers and electronics. That wasn’t the thing at the time. The pure jazz was acoustic. But I liked synthesizers and still do. It’s just another instrument. It would have been easier to conform but it wouldn’t have been as much fun. For me, if I stop enjoying this music, I’ll go and teach school or dig a garden or get a farming job. The music means a lot to me. I feel something when I play and I want to keep it that way. I don’t want to be dead inside and play music and be forced to do something I don’t want to do. I’ve been blessed because I’ve survived. And part of the reason I’ve survived is because I’m reasonably versatile. I’m not a bad reader, and I can hack it as a baritone player in a band. I play a variety of instruments and I can be part of ensembles that play Dowland and Medieval music. And I can be part of the Anouar Brahem and Dave Holland project because I’m interested in Middle Eastern music. And I play bass clarinet, which fits into all sorts of weird music, so I think versatility helps. And I can write.

As a musician and composer, how do you measure the success of your work?

I measure my success by the fact that I’m still invited to play with some fantastic musicians. And they seem to get on with me.

Interview conducted Aug. 29, 2009, It originally appeared in


One comment on “Interview with John Surman

  1. […] For the 72nd birthday of the master saxophonist/woodwindist John Surman, here’s a feature piece that Jazziz gave me an opportunity to write about him in 2009, when he was gigging behind the ECM release, Brewster’s Rooster, with John Abercrombie, Drew Gress and Jack DeJohnette. (For an informative contemporaneous interview with Surman that takes a different angle, link to this on Larry Applebaum’s fine website.) […]

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