Iron Man. From Morning Glory (John Surman), 1973
The boring jazz name for this Euro-jazz supergroup would have been the John Surman sextet. But the set came out on Island records, who treated him to a decent production – double gatefold sleeve, care over the design (by “Fabio Nicoli Associates”!), nice pics and a name: Morning Glory. It’s a good one for this highlight in the Surman discography, although the name – and the band – were never heard again after this release as far as I know (the unbeatable understanding between Surman, Chris Laurence on bass and John Marshall on drums survives and can still be experienced occasionally when they reconvene as a trio). Add Malcolm Griffiths‘ trombone and Terje Rypdal’s McLaughlin influenced electric guitar and it’s a remarkable line-up of confident, compatible improvisers.
And they really deliver. It might seem perverse to choose a Surman album where he does not play baritone, but soprano sax and bass clarinet fit superbly with the other instrumentation. There’s more electricity in the sound, perhaps even in the air, than in Surman’s later – and continuing – stream of peerless albums for ECM, although only Rypdal and, some of the time, John Taylor’s piano are actually electrified here. There’s an urgency about this assembly of youngsters – the leader and Laurence and Rypdal all still in their twenties. They’re all superbly accomplished, and you can feel the delight in their ability to play so freely together.
The overall feel is gnarlier than the sound most associate with Surman ECM recordings, where he has more often emphasised the pastoral side of his music – though Surman devotees had already had some glimpses of that on the multi-tracked wonder that is Westering Home the year before this record. This, by contrast, is all about the group sound. There are six voices here creating together, with few stretches where the band fall into front line and rhythm section roles. But the playing is never unanchored, harmonically or rhythmically, because the bassist, in particular, can contribute richly to the ongoing simultaneous conversation while still keeping perfect time.
I remember the feeling of real excitement from this music when it was released. It brought in some of the energy of the jazz rock that was then ascendant, but still kept what I now see as the jazz virtues. Yes, there are ostinati here and there but everything stays rhythmically loose, the players are poised to head off in a new direction at any moment, and most of the time it can be cued by whoever has the best idea. It sounds “as live” from this recording in Canterbury’s Marlowe Theatre, though some overlapping soprano sax and bass clarinet passages suggest it wasn’t quite done that way. There’s certainly no hint of an audience, although it’s easy to imagine yourself in the room as they create this sound in real time.
All demonstrated well on this track. There’s a brief, exploratory, bass intro, joined by drums, then piano, before a rocking statement of the main theme, with Surman’s soprano soaring above the ensemble. The trombone joins him when he reaches the riff at the end, with brief comments from the guitar. Then Surman, Griffiths – who really does some of his best recorded work here – and Rypdal play around the riff together. Nothing sounds pre-planned. The bulk of the track has all the players (or perhaps none) soloing together – Weather Report style. There’s a slight change of pace when Surman switches to atmospheric bass clarinet, and the horns drop out for a while when Rypdal tears things up on heavy wah wah guitar that perhaps sounds very 1973, but fits perfectly here.
The LP did little business by Island’s standards, I imagine. There was an unauthorised reissue a while back, but I think the Spotify version is a Surman certified remix that appeared on CD in 2016. He obviously still cares for this music, and how he wanted it to sound. And so he should. It’s not quite like anything else I can think of from his towering career, and represents a band that could obviously have gone on to great things together instead of, mostly, separately.
Full album –
Why the No 26? This is one of a series running (in no particular order) through 2021. I explain a bit what it’s doing here.
There’s a cumulative playlist of all the ones that can be found on Spotify.
Album sleeve pics by Fin Costello