Jazz CD Reviews

S.O.S. – Looking for the Next One – Cuneiform

S.O.S.: British free jazz worth re-discovering or hearing for the first time.

Published on July 30, 2013

S.O.S. – Looking for the Next One – Cuneiform Rune 360/361 (2 CDs), CD 1: 52:55, CD 2: 67:16 [5/21/13] ****:

(Mike Osborne – alto saxophone, percussion; Alan Skidmore – soprano & tenor saxophone, drums; John Surman – baritone & soprano saxophone, bass, clarinet, synthesizer, keyboards, grand piano (CD 1, track 2), electric piano (CD 1, track 5); Tony Levin – drums (CD 1, tracks 5-6))

British avant-garde/free jazz has not had much success on this side of the Atlantic, thus even the best performers do not have high name recognition. Hopefully, collections such as Cuneiform’s Looking for the Next One, a double-CD which features the S.O.S. trio, will introduce jazz artists who may have ridden below the radar of avant-garde/free jazz fans. S.O.S. consisted of saxophonist/drummer Alan Skidmore (the first S); saxophonist/percussionist Mike Osborne (the O); and multi-instrumentalist John Surman (the second S). During the group’s short-lived tenure (formed in 1973 and disbanded in 1976) they released one album (a self-titled 1975 effort) and did a score of European gigs. Surman, Osborne and Skidmore were leading-edge musicians in the ‘60s and ‘70s English jazz scene, in an assortment of contexts prior to coming together. Alto saxophonist Osborne was known for his specifically cerebral and combustible style, and worked with various UK jazz contributors, including Surman. Surman was one of the few English sax players who found a receptive audience in the burgeoning rock music community of the late ‘60s; he collaborated with British blues pioneer Alexis Korner, abetted Dave Holland and John McLaughlin, and toured with Kenny Clarke. Before S.O.S., he issued seven solo records. The muscular, versatile Skidmore (who had participated on a previous Surman studio venture) also did time with Korner as well as John Mayall, Georgie Fame, Ronnie Scott, and led his own quartet, which involved Kenny Wheeler.

When S.O.S. started they operated in a way similar to Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band. They rehearsed extensively in a house (Surman’s country home); they twisted music sideways; defied conventions and explored sonic possibilities; and notwithstanding low commercial attainment, influenced future artists. Unlike later sax-laden groups, such as the World Saxophone Quartet and Rova Saxophone Quartet, S.O.S. was always more than three saxes: members switched instruments on record and on stage. Skidmore could move to the drum kit; Osborne used percussion instruments; and when Surman wasn’t utilizing his baritone or soprano saxes, he might pick up bass or clarinet, or play keyboards. Looking for the Next One is split between one studio side and one concert side: rare and unissued sessions and live material, most of which has probably been unheard except by diehard enthusiasts.

Disc one contains three tracks taped in late 1974 and three pieces from September, 1975. Even though some material was meant for radio airplay, this is uncompromising music. Surman opens with the short, audacious solo cut, “News,” where he overdubs a forceful, brusquely percussive ECM synthesizer while he wails on soprano, which is thickly processed with delay and other effects: the fade-in and subsequent fadeout imply a sustained improvisation was edited. The trio showcases a three-sax attack on “Rashied,” designated after former John Coltrane drummer Rashied Ali, and based on music Osborne and Surman got during a London encounter with Ali. This nine-minute excursion pinpoints S.O.S.’s commitment to lengthy, segmented forms which discard standard theme-solos-theme prototypes, instead relying on continuous performance, in this case some Coltrane-inspired blowing. There is a melody and rhythm, but arranged only via a triple-sax method.

The 14-minute title track foregoes the all-sax sequence. Surman’s dual-layered, overdubbed synth (which takes full advantage of studio panning: the synth appears three-dimensional on headphones) is harnessed in the elongated introduction, which evokes electronic music innovators Tangerine Dream. Surman then changes to grand piano (the only time he employed that instrument on record), and then doubled saxes enter. There is a feeling analogous to what pianist McCoy Tyner and Coltrane created: a complex interplay where themes ebb and flow. Eleven minutes in, Skidmore swaps to drums, Surman goes back to swirling synth, and Osborne takes a surging sax lead: this portion of the title track has echoes of likeminded acts such as early Weather Report. The fadeout suggests this was part of a longer jam. Drummer Tony Levin (not to be confused with the King Crimson bassist) guests on two tracks. He had earlier performed with both Surman and Skidmore, and brings fuel to the fire on the explosive, 14-minute “Q.E. Hall,” where he and Surman (on both electric piano and synth) lay down rhythmic fusillades, while Skidmore and Osborne go for broke on fiery sax solos. There is no outright descent but there are some exposed spaces during “Q.E. Hall”: while this is densely packed, S.O.S. does allow some breathing room, where electric piano or single sax sojourn in the vortex. CD one concludes with the brief “The Mountain Road,” assembled from the roots of a traditional folk reel. Levin establishes a rhythmic support which blends a New Orleans second-line beat with an Irish groove, while the three saxes improvise with flexibility and tousled autonomy.

The second disc comprises an hour-long concert set taped July 27, 1974 at a jazz festival held in the German venue Balver Höhle. Three stretched-out pieces (and one concise closing cut) display S.O.S.’s ability to join separate compositions into one nonstop conception. The commencing 25-minute opus, “Suite,” incorporates “Ist” and “Goliath,” recorded six months later on the trio’s eponymous debut on the Ogun label. The musicians’ precision is spot-on: they effortlessly turn wherever the music goes; despite some heady moments, they never lose an emotional core; and the live use of drums and keyboards is incisive. It is obvious Surman, Osborne and Skidmore are passionate and particular about what they want to do. The substantial, 23-minute “Trio Trio” also applies an Irish reel as a foundation (this largely improvised creation was afterwards the basis for “The Mountain Road”). The threesome expounds, elaborates and expands the folk underpinning into memorable chordal and chromatic movements: when Surman extends his careening synth loops and effects alongside Osborne and Skidmore’s twinned saxes, the result is otherworldly. Things settle into marginally straightforward terrain during the 15-minute, all-sax medley, “Up There,” which integrates “Where’s Junior?,” “Cycle Motion” and “Country Dance,” which were all then added to the group’s first appearance on record. All three saxes intertwine and weave round one another in a winding demonstration of communication and tonally (and sometimes atonally) driven, uninhibited music. For an encore, S.O.S. tantalizes the crowd with Surman’s 90-second, three-sax composition “Legends,” an arrangement of a three-part Bach invention. The levels and sound of both the studio and live recordings are quite good, especially considering how some concert mixes from the 1970s have suffered over the decades from tape neglect and older audio technology. The CD package also includes a 16-page booklet with historical photos and in-depth liner notes from jazz critic Bill Shoemaker.

TrackList:  CD 1: News; Rashied; Looking for the Next One; Country Dance; Q.E. Hall; The Mountain Road.
CD 2: Introduction; Suite; Trio Trio; Up There; Legends

—Doug Simpson




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