[10 September 2013]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
S.O.S. was a short-lived saxophone trio from England. Their name is just an acronym of the members’ last names: Surman, Osborne and Skidmore. They toured extensively in Europe and managed to make one album together in 1975. Their brand of jazz is rare. If this trio even chooses to be backed by any additional instruments, they prefer one drummer and a smattering of electronics rather than a pianist or bassist or anything like that. The forms of their songs were loops, repeated phrases that walked the fine line between wacky and groovy. And when one of them soloed they did it with all the flair of a gambler who loved having no safety net. Their music was unique then and it remains unique today. The cobbled-together lost sessions that make up Looking for the Next One were recorded in the ‘70s and released in 2013, but the only variable that dates the album is the cover. And even then, people still dress like that.
S.O.S. are listed as being so important and influential that there might not have been a Rova or a World Saxophone Quartet (!) without them. So why do they appear to be just a footnote in jazz history? Why did Ken Burns only talk about Miles Davis and Dexter Gordon when his documentary made it to the ‘70s? That’s a discussion for another time. S.O.S. had three things working against their favor back then. First, the British press just didn’t get them. Where avant-garde jazz fans heard artistry, English journalists heard formless noise. Secondly, the economy in the UK was weak during this time and S.O.S. had trouble getting gigs. Most of their income came from European tours, where people really got what they were doing. And thirdly, Mike Osborne was growing ill. He had to stop working altogether in the early ‘80s. Cancer eventually took his life in 2007. Their lone album went out of print and obtaining it these days is difficult, even in the throes of the digital age.
So S.O.S. are the victims of wrong time and wrong place. A quick run-in with their sound might make you think that they share some of the blame as well, coming up with a kind of jazz style that was too new and too bold for mass appeal. But the truth is, S.O.S.‘s music is still pretty accessible in its own twisted way. It’s not terribly catchy like all of your favorite standards, it doesn’t swing like the big bands, but it’s music that stays with you nonetheless. There is humanity in its clinical cycles, the product of three people who understand how people like to hear music, as well as the challenge of delivering said music with their slim format. By the time S.O.S. disbanded in 1976, they were up to the task and we’re pretty lucky that Looking for the Next One was captured at this time.
Looking for the Next One is a double album; disc one is the studio sessions and disc two is a 1974 gig at the Balver Höhle Jazz Festival in Germany. It’s only eleven tracks in all (and one of those is a 66-second introduction from the festival’s emcee), but it stretches just over two hours. These songs didn’t stop for anybody. If these three gentlemen felt that 14 minutes was ample time to explore an idea, then they did so. John Surman doubled up on electric piano or synthesizers while Tony Levin—of the band Mujician—provided stick work for “Q.E. Hall” and “The Mountain Road” on studio dates. Not to underscore Levin’s contributions to the music, but the most interesting stuff seems to be happening when he’s not around. Perhaps it’s just too difficult to summon a beat for a whacked-out piece of electro-soloing like on “News”. The jauntiness of “Country Dance” relies so well on saxophone syncopation that any rhythm section would probably be heard as a hindrance.
The whole thing goes further out in a concert setting. Since Surman, Osborne and Skidmore were performing instead of making an album, they probably weren’t thinking about the space restrictions of long playing records. So do you know what that means? Starting off the set with a number called “Suite” that lasts 25:17! And after that is “Trio Trio” which lasts 23:28! And my goodness, the sounds that came from the stage on that day. There’s something hooked up to a wah pedal, a sequenced loop that sounds like a malfunctioning R2D2 and a basement-level pedal tone interrupted by its own static. Surman makes a riff for “Up There” on the bass clarinet. He’s eventually joined by one of his compatriots in harmony. This riff slows down and modulates as solos bounce around the hall. Then, they break into “Country Dance”, only to abandon it before the song’s final stretch. What in the hell? This is some black jazz magic going on here.
I can already tell that there’s a case being mounted as to why Looking for the Next One is not jazz, and I don’t care. It shares things in common with ‘60s psychedelic pop and ‘70s progressive rock, but I’m not going to make the argument that those are the appropriate genres for tagging here either. Time spent bickering over labels can be better spent listening to “Suite” and “Trio Trio” on your earbuds and getting lost amongst the dizzying ebbs and flows.