Recorded March 1969, London. First release on Vinyl LP by DERAM with cat # DML-R1045 (UK) in 1970.
Tracklisting is incorrectly given on artwork as below, but the CD actually places the second LP side (4,5) before the first (1,2,3):
1. Galata Bridge
4. Event (a) Gathering (b) Ritual (c) Circle Dance
5. How Many Clouds Can You See?
John Surman's second album remains his most impressive, anticipating the sound and scope of the European free jazz movement that would blossom in the decade to come - boasting an extraordinary roster highlighted by trumpeter Harry Beckett, tenorist Alan Skidmore and bassist Barre Phillips, How Many Clouds Can You See? captures a singular moment in the evolution of British jazz, forging a new and distinct sound with few musical antecedents. Surman is a force of nature here, wielding his baritone, soprano and bass clarinet as if they were weapons - no less impressive is his control, however, and no matter how far How Many Clouds Can You See? may travel, the music never lapses into self-indulgence or swallows its own tail.
All Music Guide
========= from the cover ==========
How many clouds can you see? John Surman
By the time John Surman came to record this, his second album for Deram, in 1969, the San Francisco-born bassist Barre Phillips - who had arrived in London in 1967 - had replaced Dave Holland in Surman's regular trio, Holland having left to join Miles Davis.
The record date, at Decca's studios in Broadhurst Gardens, West Hampstead, came just before another personnel change in The Trio, when Stu Martin from Liberty, New York, who had come to Europe in 1965, took over on drums.
Soon after the date, The Trio decamped to Belgium - a move necessitated by work permit problems. And this explains Miles Kington's references to Belgium in the original liner note. Kingston, in typically capricious form, actually offered 'ten sleeves notes for the price of one', one of which, For Belgians, ran: "I hope you like having John Surman living over there, but you ought to buy this record, too." Which was sound advice.
Now, almost 30 years later, the lot of the annotator has improved substantially and I am in the happy position of being able to write one liner note for the price of ten.
As Kington pertinently observed, (Liner Note No. 3 -For People Who Think Surman Is Over-rated), "He may possibly be the best baritone player in the world, though nobody could prove it, but he is undoubtedly the only John Surman in the world, which is much more important." Agreed.
The world's only John Surman gave a typically unpretentious reply when I asked him the significance of the album's title: "I don't know - just whimsy," he said.
Up to this point in his career, as well as playing extensively with Mike Westbrook, Surman had worked in a variety of musical contexts - with Alexis Korner, Ronnie Scott, Humphrey Lyttelton, the Brotherhood of Breath and John McLaughlin, and also with that pool of fine musicians who joined him and Westbrook for regular sessions at Ronnie Scott's old place in Soho's Gerrard Street.
John Surman was in the sextet which Mike Westbrook took to compete with groups from 11 other countries in the 2nd International Jazz Competition at the Montreux Jazz Festival in June 1968. Completing the line-up were Mike Osborne, Malcolm Griffiths, Harry Miller and Alan Jackson.
June 15 proved a memorable day for Surman - he was not only voted top soloist in the contest by the international jury, thus qualifying for a free one-year scholarship to the Berklee School of Music in Boston, but he also won the Selmer Trophy as the top soloist on a wind instrument.
Peter Eden, who produced How Many Clouds Can You See?, recalls: "At this time, Mike/Westbrook and John Surman could call on some fantastic musicians - players who were doing some really adventurous things - and I think this period in the evolution of British jazz has not been given the recognition it deserves. The Decca company was trying to establish Deram as a progressive label, designed to present a wide spectrum of contemporary music. I remember going to sales conferences and telling the management that instead of labelling the music 'jazz', which could well turn off a lot of potential customers, they should market it as being in the same bag as King Crimson, who were generally regarded as the prototype British progressive band of the late Sixties.
"The albums sold quite well, but I don't think Decca at that time had the marketing know-how to exploit the full potential of Surman's recordings. But the albums did well in the USA, where they were released on the London label, and the Japanese loved them - they kept coming back to Decca and asking for more."
Whatever the marketing strategy may have been, John Surman never had any inhibitions about being categorized as a jazz musician - though not one of any particular jazz persuasion. "I never regarded myself as an avant garde musician," he says. "I don't take much notice of labelling. I have always thought it would be a bit tricky to put a label on my music. I am just a jazz musician and I'm happy to leave it at that."
At the time of this recording, Surman not only had a regular trio but was also leading an all-star octet and it is this group which is featured on the opening track of the album.
Galata Bridge is named after the bridge which links the two parts of Istanbul. Says John: "I went there in 1967 on a student choir trip and I wrote a little suite for Mike Westbrook's band, of which Galata Bridge is one of the movements."
The piece opens with a low-key vamp by bass and piano. Then Surman enters on baritone, building, characteristically from a calm and restrained mood to one of wild abandon. There follows a section of dramatic contrast - between the solemn, stately background chords of the ensemble and the free and frantic improvisation of the baritone, over urgent, restless drum patterns.
After an energetic drum interlude by Alan Jackson, the music takes on a strong Middle Eastern flavour. Then come a sequence of high-energy solos from John Taylor, Alan Skidmore and Mike Osborne. The band reprises the long-note lines from the opening, there is an explosive climax and then the seal is set with a single bass note.
The next track, named after the British chieftain, born, even before my time, in 54AD, is a duet between Surman and Alan Jackson. They open up phrasing the lines together, then a hectic conversation develops. Jackson plays with controlled power and subtlety and Surman gets into the high harmonics once again before spiralling down, characteristically, to the more familiar conventional register. The duo then re-state the theme before the fad^-out ending.
Premonition, by Montreal-born saxophonist and composer, John Warren, features the 12-piece ensemble, with Barre Phillips replacing Harry Miller and Tony Oxley taking over from Alan Jackson.
Recalling the composition, Warren says: "I was trying to write something with a very sparse opening ensemble, using linear writing to contrast with the cluster chords that occur at the end. The first three sections of the piece are uncluttered but then come the chords, using a wide range of textures and sonorities - with tuba and flute as well as the brass and saxophones - and these continue throughout the piano solo."
John Taylor plays with tremendous command and authority, as indeed he does on the other four tracks on which he is featured. Also notable is the highly vigorous and distinctive drumming of Oxley.
The last two tracks on the album are played by John Surman with just rhythm section backing. Event is a three-part composition, with Surman playing baritone and overdubbing bass clarinet on the first section, Gathering.
Says John: "I had forgotten that I was doing overdubbing as early as 1970 - it surprised me. That foreshadowed a lot of things I was to do subsequently."
As is not unusual in a Surman piece, after the relatively subdued and reflective start, the tension and the volume build dramatically. There is a scrambling piano passage and the bass clarinet becomes distinctly truculent as the temperature and emotions escalate, finally subsiding into a mood of calm and tranquillity.
The second part, Ritual, features Barre Phillips playing arco bass and exploiting all the instruments resources - single notes, chords and harmonics. He then sets a latin tempo to introduce Circle Dance, the third part of the suite, using a reiterated six-note phrase with first Oxley and then Taylor providing strong chordal backing. Surman then enters on baritone with a repeated riff, played in unison with Taylor.
There follows a powerful extended solo by Oxley, who gets a great sound from his drums and makes creative use of dynamics. He then sets a fast tempo and Surman returns with a riff theme before taking off on a wildly uninhibited solo. Behind him the rhythm trio improvise freely, each man doing his own thing but responding attentively to Surman's lead.
Surman plays with enormous dexterity and an endless flow of ideas. He will hit on a phrase, savour it for a while, modify it, then worry it to death. Eventually the tension relaxes and there are staccato exchanges among all four men.
There follows a brilliant solo from Taylor, unaccompanied at first and then with the support of Oxley and Phillips. Surman returns with angry waspish sounds, the piece moves into high-speed straight time and then tails off into a peaceful ending.
The short title track is a real tour-de-force for Surman on soprano saxophone and it provides an unexpectedly serene and pastoral ending to this album. Surman plays very much in Coltrane mode here, providing, according to the Time Out review, 'relief from the sensation of having just struggled the wrong way up an escalator in the rush hour.'
This recording gave a considerable boost to Surman's already substantial reputation. Some months after its release he not only won the Melody Maker poll as top overall baritone saxophonist but he also displaced Tubby Hayes as top British musician. But this was just the beginning!
- Mike Hennessey