JOHN SURMAN — Flashpoint: NDR Jazz Workshop - April '69 (review)

JOHN SURMAN — Flashpoint: NDR Jazz Workshop - April '69 album cover Live album · 2011 · Post Bop Buy this album from MMA partners
4.5/5 ·
Sean Trane
Another absolutely fantastic posthumous release from the fabulous Cuneiform label, this is the second John Surman archives album that Steve Feigelbaum unearths after the Way Back When sessions, but this time, he strikes even stronger with the NDR Workshop, just a few months after the Soft Machine album of the same nature. Yes, because while this is a CD release, more importantly this is also a DVD object, featuring the full-length TV broadcast - even if in this case, it’s quite a bit shorter than Soft Machine’s set. Recorded in April 69, the B&W footage lasts some 40 minutes and it features a solid apercu of the late-60’s London jazz-scene, with some of its most representative stalwarts (Skidmore, Osborne, Jackson, Miller, Wheeler and club owner Ronnie Scott) “touring” Germany, with the help of a few local musicians, including the excellent pianist Fritz Pauer.

While the 7-men horn section might make you think the overall sound of this set would be a big band thing, it’s actually fairly rare that it is reminiscent of the Ellington-Goodman-Miller days, especially that these post-bop musicians don’t really appear traditionalist or purists, even though the older participant Ronnie Scott (sax) was probably into his mid-50’s back then. While the overall energy level of the session is high enough to fit in the JR/F realm, the way the group is aligned is still fairly traditional, with the seven hornmen on one side and the so-called rhythm section (bass-drums-piano) is facing them. Indeed apparently this was still the old jazz thinking that the piano was part of the rhythm section, rather than a solo instrument on its own, but I wouldn’t call their music a typically standardy jazz either. As for the general mood, we’re seeing what looks like one of the final rehearsal for a concert premiere, where the now well-oiled band is fine-tuning the last details, and we get to hear the happy comments from each musician, and they’re having a mighty fun time and fully enjoying themselves.

Opening on Miller’s bass ostinato, John Surman’s Mayflower track gives the tone, where John and Osborne reassure us that things won’t get dissonant as they take the first two solos of the set. The following Once Upon A Time tune starts out big-band-like, but that impression soon fades as Wheeler’s flugelhorn shoots out a superb solo then Skidmore’s sax both backed by Pauer’s superb Tyner-derived piano tickling give plenty of charm to that slightly slower tune. The 6-mins Kleinschuster-penned Puzzle track is one of the more-brilliant pieces of the set, allowing both the composer, but Griffiths to show their shining trombones off, but an always expandable (thankfully-short) drum solo almost ruins the mood. Pianist Pauer’s Gratuliere composition is again a tad slower, but very melodious, which is much more than I could ever say about the title track’s first two minutes, where chaos and mayhem clash in a musical quagmire, before the horns pull it out the mess and into a superb groove, where the piano lays the groundwork for the saxes to blow the roof off the studio, but also to fade-out deliciously with the piano.

While the NDR B&W footage is in pristine condition and sounds fantastic (in mono), the actual shooting leaves somewhat to be desired: indeed we have a no-frills bare studio surrounding, where the cameras are filming the musicians from the outside of the main ring, but also film each other filming… A bit amateurish filming or editing, sometimes showing Jackson’s back, when Pauer’s piano should’ve been the focal point. The NDR film crew will become much better, being close to perfection for the Soft machine workshop. In the meantime, the Cuneiform booklet also dishes out some very interesting and generally-ignored information about the general background of the British musical/cultural scene in the 60’s, .where if the pop-rock British invasion was indeed in full-swing, the agreements were quite different for the jazz-scene, giving little hope for British musicians to get acceptance across the pond, and the limited impact of the Swinging London scene just outside the downtown limits. Sooo, while the Radio Bremen and the Hamburg-based NDR stations were in the British sector of West-Germany, both played a key role in mixing European jazz players to create its own cultural jazz sound, one that might eventually lead into the creation of the German ECM label from the same time frame as these broadcasts. An outstanding and informative release that every British-jazz scene fan simply must own. Thanks Steve!!

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