This is FRESH AIR. Our jazz critic Kevin Whitehead has been listening to some previously unreleased recordings from the 1970s by the English trio S.O.S., the initials of saxophonists John Surmon, Mike Osborn and Alan Skidmore. Kevin says this sparsely documented group pointed the way for other modern bands.


KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: The trio S.O.S. was formed in 1973 and made only one LP a couple of 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.


WHITEHEAD: S.O.S. in 1974. 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.


WHITEHEAD: 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.


WHITEHEAD: John Surman on soprano sax. A lot of '60s and '70s English jazz has that bagpipe-y energy. In the trio 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.


WHITEHEAD: This music is from a double set of unreleased S.O.S., "Looking for the Next One" recorded in concert and the studio in 1974 and '5. It more than doubles their 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 is their time.



DAVIES: Kevin Whitehead writes for Point of Departure, Downbeat, and EMusic and is the author of "Why Jazz?" He reviewed "Looking for the Next One" by the English trio S.O.S. You can download podcasts of our show at freshair.npr.org. Follow us on Twitter @nprfreshair and on Tumblr at nprfreshair.tumblr.com.

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