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John Surman - Way Back When

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Artist: John Surman

Album: Way Back When

Label: Cuneiform

Review date: Jun. 9, 2005

Age has a habit of adding a patina of importance to objects. As a result of this sort of natural aggrandizement, “lost” albums receive cachet that isn’t always deserved. An undeniable archival allure almost always appends their excavations. But whether that conceptual relevance translates to an enjoyable listening experience isn’t necessarily correlative. John Surman’s Way Back When illustrates these issues, while presenting a modest body of music that manages to circumvent most of them.

Cut in October of 1969, the session advanced all the way to the test pressing stage. Commotion surrounding Surman’s departure to Belgium (for what would become a creative and lucrative trio with bassist Barre Phillips and drummer Stu Martin) and a subsequent studio closing contributed to the tapes’ entombment. Fast forward to 2003 and the fortuitous rediscovery of the cache of masters. Through a combination of sources, the vintage album now stands reconstructed.

Six tracks, four of which make up a multi-part title suite, have the casual ambiance of a jam session, a rubric Surman even cops to in his brief liners. Pianist John Taylor and bassist Brian Odgers each plug in on electric variants of their instruments. The band sounds deeply enamoured with the fusion proclivities of the era. Taylor traffics in pastel washes and smears, milking his amplified ivories for the stockpile of textural options available. John Marshall’s muscular, if largely monochromatic, drums stick mainly to the task of fencing rhythmic boundaries with snare-stamped time keeping.

Surman sticks to soprano for the first piece, nurturing a simple melodic kernel before spooling out coiled, undulating tonal ribbons that snake across a spacey modal backdrop. A bellows’ worth of breath funnels through his mouthpiece, but the resultant improvisations end up a relatively shallow showing – the sort of prolix flights that were the regular province of Dave Liebman in Miles Davis’ electric bands. Sans Surman, “Part 3” settles on some very palate-pleasing funk. Odgers anchors a corpulent groove and Taylor trips out on some free-floating clusters, but the track also meanders into spacey repetition toward the close.

Missing through the first half of the set is the degree of incisiveness and synergy Surman achieved in the company of guitarist John McLaughlin. The pair mined similar territory on albums like Extrapolation, though it’s a somewhat unfair point of comparison considering the seminal status of that session. The disc’s b-side fares better with the blistering alto sax of Mike Osbourne added to the band. Here Surman hefts his baritone on “Owlshead,” spurred by Osbourne’s soaring, careening precursor solo. Hunkering down he blasts forth with brow-furrowing salvos that capitalize on the high-calibre firepower of his horn. The rhythm section sounds similarly sparked by the presence of the second saxophonist. After a bout of extended athletic blowing, “Out and About” fades out abruptly, leaving additional evidence of the session’s coarse mix origins.

While probably not a starting point for new listeners interested in exploring Surman’s sizeable oeuvre, this set still has its charms. As an unpolished curio of their hero in his freewheeling youth, fans of the British saxophonist would do well to pick up a copy.

By Derek Taylor

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