JOHN SURMAN — Saltash Bells (review)

JOHN SURMAN — Saltash Bells album cover Album · 2012 · Post-Fusion Contemporary Buy this album from MMA partners
5/5 ·
Steve Wyzard

Let me put it to you straight: if you own and love Upon Reflection (1979), Withholding Patterns (1985), and/or Road to Saint Ives (1990), you absolutely, positively MUST hear Saltash Bells. As of this writing, John Surman has now dwelt among for 7 decades, and while it's too soon to tell if this album will be his definitive masterpiece, this utterly compelling solo statement MUST be heard to be believed. And while Surman has recorded a number of solo albums over the years (some more successful/memorable than others), Saltash Bells is truly special, different, and one for the ages.

Inspired by his beloved Cornish countryside, we are given no other clues regarding the songs' titles or the album's thematic concept; the only liner notes are a "thank you" to his son for help with electronics. Unlike some of his previous, more measured albums, we are instantly aware of the busier, percolating synths beneath his soloing on the opener, "Whistman's Wood". "Glass Flower" is a showpiece for alto, bass, and contrabass clarinets. "On Staddon Heights" begins hauntingly only to become the album's most rhythmic track: with the magic of multi-tracking, soprano sax leads soar over baritone sax bass lines. "Triadichorum" is a short piece for three baritone saxes. Too lively to be elegiac, "Winter Elegy" is probably the most "traditional" Surman composition: a repetitive synth pattern is joined by a rumbling, tidal contrabass clarinet before tenor and soprano sax lines are contrapuntally woven into a musical tapestry.

The baritone solo "AElfum" is merely a prelude to the album's most awe-inspiring number, the End-Of-All-Days title track. There is almost too much going on here for mortal comprehension with who-knows-how-many horns in the multi-tracking arrangement of the century. What "Desireless" is to Jan Garbarek, "Saltash Bells" is now to John Surman. Opening with random tinkling synths and closing with sampled church bells, this mind-bending exercise in canon will no doubt repay hours of listening and re-listening. Before the mood grows a little too serious, Surman throws us a curveball with two jaunty, upbeat songs. "Dark Reflections" (a mass of soprano saxes) is angular, perky, and hypnotic, while "The Crooked Inn" features baritone and soprano bouncing off one another to almost humorous effect. A harmonica is introduced in the album's closer, "Sailing Westwards". All folky and countryish connotations are dashed to bits when a gurgling baritone is joined by piercing soprano over a rolling boil of synths before fading to a murmur of chirping insects. Unreal!

John Surman's gift for saxophone/woodwind melody is unparalleled, and the career renaissance that began with 2009's group album Brewster's Rooster continues unabatedly with the solo Saltash Bells. This is no wistful gaze backwards before riding off into the sunset, but an aggressive, jaw-dropping statement of virtuosic proportions. This album cannot be recommended more highly, especially to those with previous exposure to Surman's magical music. And at 59:13, it's not too much of a good thing. Only one questions remains: why did it take three years from recording (June 2009) to release (June 2012)?
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