Written by Kevin Whitehead from NPR
The English trio S.O.S. — saxophonists John Surman, Mike Osborne and Alan Skidmore — was formed in 1973, and made only one LP for the Ogun label a couple years later. They didn’t last long, but they were the first of many horn choirs born in the ’70s and ’80s, mostly saxophone quartets. S.O.S.’s trio voicings sometimes eerily anticipate the World Saxophone Quartet that came along a bit later.
The trio was tight and maneuverable, changing direction as one, like birds in flight. That precision stemmed from extensive rehearsing, close listening on the bandstand and playing a little Bach. S.O.S. might sound like more than three players, by moving the voices around, even when two reeds are riffing behind the other.
Tenor player Alan Skidmore is a Londoner, the son of a jazz saxophonist. Altoist Mike Osborne and multi-instrumentalist John Surman grew up closer to the countryside. There was always a strong whiff of agrarian roots and the English folk revival about S.O.S. They might literally break into an Irish jig. Their theme “Country Dance” was perfect for a romp around the maypole. A lot of ’60s and ’70s English jazz has that bagpipey energy.
In S.O.S, that strain was reinforced by Surman occasionally setting up electronic drones or loops to underpin the saxes. He used sequencers like The Who on Who’s Next. That side of S.O.S. looks ahead to many overdubbed solo records that John Surman has made since then, where those folk elements ring out.
A new double set of unreleased S.O.S., Looking for the Next One on the Cuneiform label, was recorded in concert and the studio in 1974 and ’75. It more than doubles the band’s output on record, and amply makes the case for a too-little-known trio that could sound timeless, of its time and ahead of its time. Maybe now’s their time.