The Church Of Me
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Kissing in the churchyard, I know a righteous woman

Tuesday, September 19, 2006
S.O.S.

I was absolutely delighted to receive in the post this weekend the CD reissue of the album S.O.S. by the group of the same name. This is the second time that Ogun boss Hazel Miller has sent me the album – the first copy, on vinyl, was posted to me at my request some thirty years ago, when I was but a schoolboy, and still resides proudly on its shelf at the family home in Glasgow. It is a total joy to welcome the record back into circulation.

S.O.S. stood for saxophonists Alan Skidmore, Mike Osborne and John Surman, and it was indeed a trailblazing group in that it was the first working saxophone-only group in jazz; a track by a prototype World Saxophone Quartet had appeared on Anthony Braxton’s New York, Fall 1974, shortly before the S.O.S. album came out, but the WSQ (with David Murray coming in for Braxton) didn’t become a fully functional working group until 1977, whereas S.O.S. had been performing since 1973 (they also predated Rova by some years).

They really were the crack reed team of progressive British jazz; Alan Skidmore, the acknowledged young master of the tenor, first call to adorn and amplify the work of every forward-thinking rock musician – he appears, inter alia, on Kate Bush’s “Saxophone Song” and the Walker Brothers’ “Fat Mama Kick” – Mike Osborne, the almost superhumanly intense altoist, still the greatest exponent of his instrument to be produced within these isles; and John Surman, arguably one of the greatest jazz musicians of his era anywhere – as a baritone saxophonist he ranks alongside Carney, Mulligan and Chaloff as one of the all-time greats, as a soprano saxophonist and bass clarinettist he is still exceptional, and as one of the earliest advocates of synthesisers and electronica in the world of improvised music (McLaughlin, Holland and de Johnette all tried to persuade Miles to hire him after Wayne Shorter left) he was also a controversial figure in the early-mid ‘70s.

That latter aspect to Surman’s music was the crucial differential in S.O.S.’s work. On the album there are many remarkable performances which feature saxophones and reeds alone, and a wide stylistic range is covered, from the mournful Ellingtonian grandeur of the gorgeous “Chordary,” which sounds like the Duke playing Robert Wyatt until broken open by Surman’s imperious and urgent baritone solo – about a month away from recording Citadel/Room 315 with the Westbrook band, he really is playing somewhere near his peak here – via the energetic Brotherhood of Breath-like riffing of “Where’s Junior?” to the far-flung shores of Scottish pibroch (“Country Dance”) and klezmer laments (“Ist”), their empathy as saxophonists and improvisers is closely and deeply palpable; they were extremely close friends, appearing on each other’s records and as a self-contained unit within many of London’s finest big bands of the period, including those of Westbrook, Mike Gibbs, Chris McGregor and Stan Tracey (indeed, each saxophonist has formed a working duo with Tracey at different periods) – I would imagine that it made putting big bands together much easier, since that was 60% of your sax section already taken care of, and they did tend to come as a package.

Where the S.O.S. album really takes off, however, is when Skidmore and Surman move away from their saxes and take the music down unexpected trajectories. Thus on “Wherever I Am” we encounter the totally unexpected spectacle of Skidmore bashing away enthusiastically, Latin-style, at a drumkit, with Surman’s Moogs and Fender Rhodes providing both a sturdy bassline and deadpan block chord comping behind Osborne’s typically coruscating alto meditations. True, as a drummer Skidmore isn’t exactly Tony Oxley, but that level of technical expertise isn’t quite what this music requires; indeed Surman’s synths and Skidmore’s drums give the project an attractive homemade feel, slightly indie and post-punk in its own pre-indie, pre-punk way, where feeling rather than immaculate technique is the priority.

Similarly, “Cycle Motion” sets up a furious rondo which fractures into agonised dialogues between Surman’s bass clarinet and Osborne’s alto before exploding into a squalling free-for-all; but then the tumult suddenly subsides to give way to a lugubrious synth melody which retreats, unresolved, into silence. My favourite track, though, is the aptly-named “Goliath” which reminds me of what prog rock could have been in kinder and more adventurous hands; over a monster bass and synth riff and thunderous drumming from Skidmore, Osborne again solos to a degree beyond intensity, and the track not only makes me think of a better Emerson, Lake and Palmer but also sounds startlingly contemporary in this age of Leafcutter John and Polar Bear. Listening to “Goliath” you wonder why Virgin or Charisma never picked up on S.O.S. (or indeed Ogun Records as a whole).

The most startling and adventurous track, however, is the last and longest one, “Calypso.” Over nearly eleven undulating minutes, Surman’s looped Kraftwerkian synth riff – again, remember, Autobahn had only very recently come out at the time of S.O.S.’s release – electronic tundras drift and shift out of and back into focus while the saxes, mixed back into dub-like, multitracked echoes, howl untraceable shards of atonality into the blank wilderness. It sounds like Global Communications or Black Dog Productions a couple of decades ahead of schedule (and with considerably less sophisticated technology to hand) mixed with elements of what I thought post-rock should always have sounded like; and it is truly a shame that no one has really followed this line of musical thought and development up; the Surman who went on to record (for the most part solo) soundscapes of lush desolation for ECM is still a remarkable player – the West Country Garbarek - but a lot of the wild(er)ness has disappeared from his later, lonelier work; and, of course, Osborne’s scarcely breathable intensity eventually forced his long-term silence. So S.O.S. remains a one-off achievement, but an astonishing and probably unrepeatable one, and you should renew your acquaintance with the record, or if you weren’t around for its first run, investigate it immediately.


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