John Surman's Proverbs and Songs was commissioned by the Salisbury Festival and premiered in the vast interior of Salisbury Cathedral in June 1996. This powerful oratorio, featuring the 75-strong Salisbury Festival Chorus plus John Taylor on the mighty cathedral organ, as well as the composer on saxophones and bass clarinet, met with the enthusiastic approval of England's leading newspapers:
"John Surman has produced a magnificent, coherent piece of 20th century choral writing," declared Alyn Shipton in The Times. "As the choir incanted the names of Adam's dynasty, Surman separated the voices, so that when the parts finally combined the effect was glorious. His unaccompanied choral writing was rich and unusual and elsewhere the the sense of jazz rhythm and forward motion came almost exclusively from his saxophone, creating rich ostinatos, or swirling aggressively among the choral parts. As ever in Surman's writing, jazz influence mingles with a respect for English tradition and the spirit of Cecil Sharp hung over the round 'A man's pride shall bring him low' before an organ interlude from Taylor broke the mood, its contrasting registrations introducing the imaginative use of spoken voices. ... As the choir spiralled upwards in the closing 'Abraham Arise', Surman confirmed that he should no longer simply be regarded as one of the country's leading improvisors and instrumentalists, but also as a choral composer of imagination, vision and power."
"In the premiere of John Surman's Proverbs and Songs everything felt right from the start," agreed The Independent's Phil Johnson. "Using texts adapted from the Old Testament, and a range of movements that interleavened solos and duets with bold choral ensembles, the piece built up into a compelling story of sin and redemption. Taylor's organ playing was particularly thrilling, mixing deep chords with Messiaen flourishes and echoes of boogie-woogie, while Surman wailed over the top in keening folk-song threnodies of great passion and strength. The final movement was movingly affirmative and Surman's solid yeoman aesthetic of archetypally English music, whatever the genre, yielded up a conclusion of mesmeric power."
The Salisbury Festival Chorus was founded in 1987, and is described by its director Howard Moody as "an exciting group of singers that doesn't start with any fixed concept of how music should sound." Public auditions for the Chorus are held annually and attract singers of a wide variety of musical experience, both professionals and amateurs. The age range within the choir is from 13 to 70. The Festival Chorus attracted a great deal of attention with its 1994 performances of Paco Pena's Misa Flamenca, the work with John Surman marking another enterprising journey beyond conventional choral fare. Howard Moody: "John Surman has given us a dose of musical inspiration through his fresh and vibrant originality, showing us how to make music the jazz musician's way – from the inside out."
Although Proverbs and Songs is likely to be perceived as a change of direction in John Surman's discography, the album gives overdue notice of one of his earliest enthusiasms. As a choirboy, and before he'd heard any jazz, he sang in the churches of England's West Country. Since the early 1980s Surman has been looking again at these "roots", developing his concept of integrating improvising soloists in a choral music context. In 1984, for instance, he presented his "Anthem" and "Morning Song", works for choir and saxophone, at the Vossa Jazz Festival in Norway. In 1986 he was commissioned to write music for the Cantamus Camber Choir and in 86/87 Surman toured extensively in Norway and Sweden with singer Karin Krog and pianist/organist Bengt Hallberg, performing with numerous local choral societies. In 1989, a commissioned work for the Glasgow Jazz Festival resulted in Ovation, Surman's tribute to Mother Teresa, which was premiered in Glasgow Cathedral with the Glasgow Phoenix choir and soloists Karin Krog, John Taylor and Gordon Beck.
Offered the opportunity to write for the Salisbury Festival Chorus, Surman paid a visit to the cathedral which he hadn't seen since he was "a boy of eight or nine". "During this pre-composition visit, I decided that I would take my text from the King James translation of the Old Testament." Various possible accompaniments for the Festival Chorus were discussed but when Surman saw the magnificient cathedral organ – a four manual organ built by Henry Willis – he determined that this should provide, along with his reeds, the necessary instrumentation, if only John Taylor – not trained as a cathedral organist – could be persuaded to play it. Taylor rose to the considerable challenge and, as Surman notes simply, "all else followed from there." The pianist had previously recorded on the organ of Suffolk Cathedral in a project with trumpeter Ian Carr so was aware of the "logistical and geographical" difficulties of improvising with players at a considerable physical remove; in Salisbury, the organist sits effectively one storey higher than the choir. Although Surman had coached the choir prior to the recording there was only one full rehearsal with organ and saxophone, in a church in Ashford, Kent. In the end, in John Taylor's words, "the heightened sense of occasion carried the day."
The concert was recorded by BBC's Radio 3, and remixed by Manfred Eicher in Oslo's Rainbow Studio.