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SOS: Looking for the Next One

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SOS (named for each player’s initials) was more than a “saxophone trio.” Tenor and soprano saxophonist Alan Skidmore often sat down behind the trap kit. John Surman, in addition to his artillery of reeds, employed an EMS synthesizer and electric piano. Only the late Mike Osbourne limited himself to his alto. SOS only existed for three years (1973-1976) and released one album. Looking for the Next One comprises two discs of unreleased studio and live performances that combine traditional musical themes with technological innovations (for the time, at least) and an approach to blowing indicative of the post-Coltrane years.

Surman often used his synthesizer to create loops of tone rows or drones that filled out the sound. His work gives the music an interstellar, if somewhat dated feel. On disc one, the title track begins this way and evolves into a rubato piano part with a swirling tenor solo by Skidmore. “Country Dance” offers a modal take on a folk melody. Two tracks feature drummer Tony Levin sitting in, adding a New Orleans second-line groove to the otherwise Ayler-esque theme of “The Mountain Road.”

Disc two is devoted to the group’s performance at the 1974 Balver Höhle Jazz Festival in Germany. The opening “Suite” takes a few minutes to catch fire, but with Skidmore’s drums and Surman’s Rhodes accompanying Osbourne, eventually it’s hard not to imagine the influence of Soft Machine. Surman, who plays more baritone sax and bass clarinet here, uses his synth to produce some bass drones that provide a good bottom. Unfortunately, several sections of these pieces find the saxophonists accompanying each other with repetitive vamps that grate quickly. “Trio Trio” has some group blowing in the middle, recalling Sun Ra and the Arkestra’s improvisations from that era (thanks mostly to the keyboards), but waiting through six minutes of primitive riffing detracts from the impact.

Cuneiform has created a great package though, with band photos and extensive liner notes that describe the British jazz scene through which SOS formed.

Originally Published