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?

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Mihály Dresch and Miklós Lukács in D.C.

Hungarian musicians Mihály Dresch, saxophone and Miklós Lukác, cimbalom made a rare appearance in Washington D.C. yesterday at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. I had to miss the afternoon’s outdoor offering in the festival tent, but stopped by after work to catch their evening performance in front of a small audience in the Baird Auditorium of the Museum of Natural History. Here is the encore from their concert:

Before & After: David “Fathead” Newman

Though he now lives in Woodstock, New York, David Newman will always be known as a Texas tenor. The big-toned saxophonist from the Lone Star State was born into a musical family 70 years ago in Corsicana, not far from Dallas. As a teenager he worked with Buster Smith and played in Red Connor’s band with Ornette Coleman. The early 1950s found Newman playing the blues with Lowell Fulson and  T-Bone Walker, then in 1954 he raised his profile when he joined Ray Charles for a 10 year stretch, first on baritone, then as featured tenor soloist. Newman, who plays all the saxophones and flute, has been making records as a leader since 1958. He’s worked in the studios, recorded jazz dates with Lee Morgan, Hank Crawford, Roy Hargrove, Dr. John, Lou Rawls, and appeared in the Robert Altman film Kansas City. His latest CD, “The Gift” (HighNote) features his soulful sound backed by John Hicks, Bryan Carrott, Buster Williams and Winard Harper. Continue reading

Before & After: Frank Morgan

Frank Morgan

This B&A was done for JazzTimes on a beautiful fall afternoon in 2005, just a couple of years before Frank Morgan passed.  He was in a good mood that day and genuinely enjoyed just hanging out and listening to music. Me too.

Frank Morgan’s life changed and his fate was set when, at age 7, his father took him to see Jay McShann’s band with Charlie Parker. It was then that he knew he wanted to be a musician and play the alto saxophone.

Born in 1933 in Minneapolis, Morgan spent his pre-teen years in Milwaukee, but he’ll be forever linked to the  post-war jazz scene in Los Angeles. That’s where his father, guitarist Stanley Morgan, opened the Casablanca Club in 1947, which became a late-night hangout for jazz musicians and movie folk.

Assimilating the music and lifestyle of Bird, Morgan made his first records with Freddie Martin, Wardell Gray and Kenny Clark before leading his own session in 1955.  Unfortunately, Morgan’s appetite for self-destruction repeatedly landed him behind bars and his career was more or less derailed until the mid 1980s when he was “discovered” by the east coast critics and began making a series of highly acclaimed recordings for Contemporary, Antilles, Telarc and Verve.

Morgan suffered a stroke in 1998, but he’s worked hard on his recovery,  battled back, and is touring again. Currently living in Taos, New Mexico, Morgan seems in good spirits; he talked about buying a juicer for the road, and reports that a new recording for High Note records is in the offing.

1. Benny Carter

“The Music from M Squad: The Mugger,” from All of Me (Bluebird). Carter, alto sax, composer; Stanley Wilson, Pete Candoli, Frank Beach, Don Fagerquist, trumpets; Frank Rosolino, Joe Howard, Pete Carpenter George Roberts, trombones; John Williams, piano; Red Mitchell, Joe Mondragon, bass; Alvin Stoller, drums. Recorded in 1959.

Before: It’s a good band. Everything’s in tune with a nice blend. I was listening to the alto player, a very fine saxophonist. It reminds a little of a Mingus tune, though I don’t hear the fire of a Mingus big band. That alto is someone who knows his history. For a minute I thought it was Benny Carter, something in the beautiful tone and approach to the horn. Benny was one of my mentors when I moved to California at 14. I tried to study with him but he said he didn’t take students so he recommended me to Merle Johnston, the guy that taught Jimmy Dorsey and Buddy Collette, to give me facility and help prepare me to play in the studios.

After: Ah-ha, it is Benny! Benny continues to amaze me, he’s the amazing man of music. The last time I saw him he was still playing like a young lion. I hope I can live that long and do that well. As an alto player he can manipulate the horn from top to bottom with such grace and ease. And he has a beautiful way of gliding down the streets of Beverly Hills in his Rolls Royce. He’s great and he deserves all that. I never had the opportunity to spend some time and really talk with him

If he were here with us right now, what would you ask him?

I would ask him what he eats and what he drinks and how he stays healthy. And then we’d get around to the horn.

2. Sonny Stitt

“It Might As Well Be Spring,” from Sonny’s Back (Muse) Stitt, alto sax; George Duvivier, bass. Recorded in 1980.

Before: [big smile] Well that’s my kind of music. I think it was Sonny Stitt. Sonny had lots of beautiful patterns that he played and that was a fine example of having one’s shit together.  There weren’t a lot of wasted notes. Great tone, great feeling. Good bass player, you don’t miss the piano or drums.

After: [sees Duvivier’s name] Oh, no wonder. I didn’t know Sonny very well, but I’ve always admired him and hold him in high esteem. I played with George once or twice at jam sessions. He’s A-Number-One.

Do you think Sonny plays the same way on tenor as he does on alto?

To me I never felt Sonny had the authority, the strong presence on the tenor that he does on the alto. Not that he doesn’t play the tenor extremely well. Hey, whenever he picks up the horn it’s an astounding thing.

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