John Surman, Mike Osborne, and Alan Skidmore, three of the most groundbreaking saxophonists in British jazz of the '60s and '70s, had already been making their marks in a variety of contexts -- performing and recording both together and apart -- when they formed the S.O.S. trio in 1973. All three saxmen had been members of the Mike Westbrook Concert Band (appearing on both volumes of 1969's Marching Song), with Surman and Osborne playing in Westbrook ensembles since 1962, and Chris McGregor's Brotherhood of Breath (appearing on the Brotherhood's eponymous debut in 1970).
However, dates under the leadership of Surman and Skidmore were particularly important in laying a foundation for the later emergence of S.O.S. Baritone and soprano saxophonist Surman led a late-'60s group featuring altoist Osborne, and both Osborne and tenor man Skidmore appeared on Surman's 1970 outing How Many Clouds Can You See?, and were also part of the ten-piece lineup that performed under Surman's leadership on the German NDR Jazz Workshop television program in 1969, as documented by the Cuneiform label's 2011 CD/DVD set Flashpoint: NDR Jazz Workshop - April '69. Also, Surman and Osborne both appeared on the B-side of TCB, an album by the Alan Skidmore Quintet released by Philips in 1970.
According to Bill Shoemaker's liner notes to the S.O.S. two-disc collection Looking for the Next One released by Cuneiform in 2013, Surman first proposed the idea of the trio to Alan Skidmore when Skidmore was hospitalized following a 1972 automobile accident. S.O.S. formed in April of the following year and began rehearsals, touring Europe in the fall as time allowed given the trio members' myriad other commitments. With all three trio members obviously best known for their saxophone virtuosity, S.O.S. are viewed by some as a precursor to the World Saxophone Quartet and Rova (both founded in 1977), but in truth the group was also a multi-instrumental affair, with Surman playing synthesizer and keyboards (as foreshadowed by his 1972 overdubbed solo album Westering Home, and also presaging his voluminous later output for ECM), and Skidmore also playing drums.
The year 1974 was an important one for S.O.S., as the group established its unique identity -- melding avant jazz, free improvisation, electronics, Irish folk, and even classical elements -- in live performances ranging from club and festival dates to a residency at the Paris Opera. In early 1975 the trio recorded the eponymous SOS album for Ogun; released later that year, it would be the only S.O.S. album issued during the group's existence. S.O.S. recorded more (unreleased) studio sessions up to September 1975, supplemented that month by guest drummer Tony Levin from the Alan Skidmore Quintet, but a challenging economic environment in Britain and health problems experienced by Osborne led the group to disband by late 1976. The trio's scant recorded evidence was supplemented by the aforementioned 2013 Cuneiform set Looking for the Next One, which featured a 1974 live recording from the Balver Hoehle Jazz Festival in Balver, Germany and London studio sessions from 1974 and 1975, including two September 1975 tracks featuring Levin. ~ Dave Lynch