Rue Britannia: A Bruising Baritone Uncovers a Missing Jazz Chapter


You could make a case for John Surman as England’s Wayne Shorter, an enigmatic figure who’s spent too much time since the late ’60s shrouded in synthesized murk. To hear Surman at his youthful best, you need to special order British reissues of his late ’60s Deram LPs and his contemporaneous albums with Mike Westbrook and Chris McGregor’s big bands. While not quite up to the same level, the previously unreleased Way Back When—a 1969 studio session teaming Surman with altoist Mike Osborne—nevertheless provides a splendid introduction. Surman’s soprano on the four-part title piece is fleet and ripped and finally nothing special—he’s absorbing the same Eastern influences hundreds of saxophonists were in those days, and John Taylor’s electric-piano groove owes far too much to In a Silent Way. But when he switches to baritone for “Owlshead” and “Out and About”—oh, boy, there wasn’t an American baritonist taking the horn up as high or down as low and exhibiting as much muscle and smarts until Hamiet Bluiett. There’s nothing particularly English about what’s going on here; the national characteristics began to assert themselves a few years later, on Surman’s uneven ECMs. But along with Cuneiform’s McGregor and Graham Collier releases, Way Back When illuminates a lost chapter in British jazz—one lost on American listeners even then.