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John Surman - Flashpoint: NDR Workshop, April ’69

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Artist: John Surman

Album: Flashpoint: NDR Workshop, April ’69

Label: Cuneiform

Review date: Jun. 3, 2011

Once again, Cuneiform fills in the historical gaps by dropping a stellar broadcast from the North German radio and television archives. This time, it’s a 1969 broadcast, presented in audio and video, led by the prolific and versatile reedsman John Surman. He fronts a 10-piece unit that represents the fruitful cross-pollination that was British jazz in those heady days.

Anyone who knows Surman’s work will recognize many of his comrades: trumpeter Kenny Wheeler, trombonist Malcolm Griffiths, alto saxophonist Mike Osborne, tenor men Alan Skidmore and Ronnie Scott, South-African bassist Harry Miller. In fact, several of them had recently recorded Surman’s second album as a leader, How Many Clouds can You See? for Decca. Surman is also joined by trombonist Erich Kleinschuster and pianist Fritz Pauer, each contributing a composition to the session.

The standout track is the aptly named “Flashpoint.” Of its time, the free opening captures the fire-and-brimstone abandon that is the prerogative of youth; Surman was just twenty-four at its taping, and his blistering baritone solo is matched in fury only by Osborne’s searing alto. The head — and all the others performed that April day — is more traditional, crossing Coltrane modality with Mingusian arrangement. Pauer’s “Gratuliere” sports the Mingus influence as Skidmore’s flute rides over the sinewy melody.

Special mention must be made of Miller’s playing and of the way he interacts with the underappreciated drummer Alan Jackson. They provide excellent support throughout, but each is also given a chance to shine; listen to Jackson’s rip-roaring solo in Kleinschuster’s “Puzzle,” and check out Miller’s huge sound as he opens “Mayflower.” The two are always in the pocket, but never more so than on the title track, providing rock-solid foundations for those incendiary solos.

The DVD provides its own revelations. In the between-tune banter, we learn, for example, that “Once Upon a Time” is dedicated to Alan Skidmore’s baby daughter; the mixes are slightly different, providing another perspective on this powerhouse session. The video shows the musicians working together easily, humor being integral to their interaction, as is so often the case when new material is in play.

As with all archival releases from Cuneiform, the sound is first-rate, which sets the label’s offerings apart from so many others. As with releases by Soft Machine, Matching Mole and Brotherhood of Breath, we are given the privilege to hear these seminal performers at formative moments, for which this writer is always grateful.

By Marc Medwin

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