CD Review: S.O.S - Looking for the Next One

S.O.S. - Looking For The Next One
(Cuneiform - RUNE 360/361. CD Review by Peter Marsh)

John Surman, Mike Osborne and Alan Skidmore formed S.O.S in 1973 or so. By that time all three musicians had established themselves as key players on the then vibrant British jazz scene, having initially played together in the big bands of Mike Westbrook and Chris MacGregor.

Though often remembered as one of the first all saxophone groups, Surman and Skidmore also doubled on keyboards and drums respectively. Surman had also been experimenting with synthesizers and early sequencers, allowing him to set up pulsing electronic ostinati. All of this was showcased pretty effectively on their one album for the great Ogun label, released in 1975, which covered a lot of ground, from free-ish blowouts to spacey fusion to folk tunes. Though popular on the European concert circuit, the trio was forced to disband the following year because of Osborne's declining health.

That album was the only evidence that the trio existed until now. This 2 CD set from the brilliant American label Cuneiform (who are also responsible for unearthing many other buried Britjazz treasures from the era) brings together unreleased studio sessions and a live festival set from 1974, and serves to underline what a singular group this was; there's really been no-one else quite like them since.

The opening News is just Surman on his own, firing off an echo-drenched soprano improvisation over burbling electronic arpeggios. It's a rougher edged forerunner to the kind of thing he was to start doing for ECM a few years later. The unadorned saxophone trio are heard on Rashied, a vehicle for some joyous riffage and gutsy soloing, and an extended take on Country Dance, a track from the Ogun album.

It's with the lengthy Looking For The Next One that the trio start to show what made them such a unique proposition. Beginning with angular cosmic synth pulses worthy of Tangerine Dream or the like, they shift to a dark, brooding Coltrane-esque dirge with the oft underrated Skidmore reeling off an ecstatic, knotty tenor solo over Surman's churning piano. Then Skidmore moves to drums, Surman fires up his synths again and Osborne's alto takes over. Any opportunity to hear this much missed player is to be welcomed; he's on fire here.

Another much missed player in the shape of drummer Tony Levin guests on two tracks. On QE Hall Surman's Rhodes piano and synths lead the quartet into the kind of open electric jazz territory covered by Herbie Hancock's Mwandishi group or early Weather Report (who Surman had played with some years earlier). Both Skid and Osborne seem especially energised by Levin's high octane eruptions, and Surman is no slouch at the keys either.

The live set is also a beauty. The long Suite (which contains themes that would later appear on the Ogun set) echoes the work of Soft Machine et al, climaxing with a typically questing Osborne solo over Surman's bubbling synths and Skidmore's drums (his drumming is not half bad, by the way). The set finishes with a couple of saxophone trios, the last of which, Legends, again pre-echoes much of Surman's subsequent work in its synthesis of folk and classical vocabularies. But while some of that music can seem a little polite for some tastes, the S.O.S approach is much more rough hewn and immediate.

Hats off (again) to Cuneiform; this is required listening for anyone interested in British jazz of the time, though its appeal goes way beyond historical interest. Essential.

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