John Surman continues to develop and grow.  His recent ECM album ‘Words Unspoken’ (check out our review here) has shown new developments as he moves into his eighties.  John Surman proved years ago that jazz could have a European accent and still be international. His majestic baritone still rings out as powerfully as ever. He answered some questions recently.

It is a long time from 1944 to 2024.  Congratulations on the journey.  You once said: ‘You can take the boy out of Devon but, thankfully, you can’t take Devon out of the boy.’.  You have spent a great deal of time in Norway. How has that affected the Devon boy?

Apart from there being a lot more snow in Norway, I find much common ground between my growing up in Plymouth and now living here just outside Oslo. I’m close to the sea and close to nature and that’s quite important to me. Not sure how it’s affected me really, perhaps just enabled me to get on with life and music in a good way. Anyway, I must say that I’m happy living here now.

Part of the new album seems to have the spirit of Gil Evans, especially the way that the music moves from theme to improvisation.  How is that achieved?

Having been lucky enough to have toured a few times with Gil’s band I have often wondered exactly what he was doing to make the band work as well as he did. It certainly wasn’t anything that he said – I can hardly recall him saying anything much about the music. I guess he just wanted us to listen to each other and develop the music together as we felt it.  Anyway, that’s the way that I’ve tried to do things! So far it seems to be working out OK.

How do you put together a new group?  What do you look for in a musician?

It’s just a gut feeling that certain people might work well together. In general, I tend to enjoy working with musicians who have a wide range of musical interests. It’s interesting with players who can cross over stylistic barriers and are open to trying different approaches – and importantly, that they have the ability to listen and adapt to developments as they occur.

‘Onich Ceilidh’ is one of the key pieces in the album, can you explain a little about the background to the piece?

Well, I suppose it is a piece of dance music. When I was teenager on holiday in Scotland we stayed in a B&B in the village of Onich. On one evening we were taken to a Ceilidh, or dancing evening – this is my musical impression. As you’ll know I’ve always had a fascination with various folk music traditions. So, this is my small tribute to a wonderful evening in Onich many years ago.

Can you tell us a little about ‘Hawksmoor’? It sounds like a piece that needs an encore!

There’s not much I can say about ‘Hawksmoor’. I guess I was just trying to create an atmosphere that would lead us all into some interesting musical directions – it seems to have worked OK. It’s just one of those pieces which moves from a quite structured section to a freer, more open space area.

The new group has played a number of concerts.  How has the music been received by audiences?

At the time of writing this we are just about to embark on a series of gigs, and I might be able to give you a better answer in a few months. However, we have played one public concert – at the Oslo Jazz Festival – and I’m pleased to say that everyone seemed to be pretty happy with the results.

For many people who admired your work over the years have a fondness for the work of The Trio with Barre Phillips and Stu Martin. Looking back at that music, how does it seem to you now?

Haha – well it seems like a long time ago! I was talking to Barre recently; he has retired from active music making and now lives in New Mexico USA. We both agreed that these were exciting times musically – I guess The Trio was really a product of those times when the music scene opened up to all kinds of possibilities. I think that that period in the 60s and 70s when all the established “rules” were challenged in so many areas of the arts:  Music – Painting – Theatre – Dance: was a very exciting time to be around. The doors were thrown open to freedom of expression and a great deal of amazing development took place in all the Arts. It was a kind of explosion in many ways and of course things settled down in the decades that have followed. I think a lot of us discovered a great deal about ourselves and our music during those years.

You were credited with being a powerful European voice in the sixties when the Americans dominated jazz.  What are your thoughts on the European scene at the moment?

Certainly the European jazz community is much larger now than it was when I started out in the sixties/seventies. There has been a real expansion in the area of jazz education and a great many young talents are emerging over the last two or three decades. I do much less touring than I did in the past, so am perhaps not best placed to assess the scene these days – however it seems to me that there are still many American artists headlining jazz festivals in Europe – but perhaps, all in all, there is a greater balance these days.

Hearing the Surman baritone emerging from the orchestras of John Warren, Mike Westbook and Gil Evans is one of the great sounds in jazz.  Are there any plans for work with large groups?

As to what you might expect after Words Unspoken, I have to tell you that your guess is as good as mine. To be honest my goal at the present is to work as much as possible with the 4tet and see how the music develops. I’m very excited to be playing with these guys and have a good feeling about the different directions that the music might take. Of course playing with large ensembles is always exciting, so we’ll just have to wait and see what develops in the future!