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John Surman – ‘Words Unspoken’

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    Posted: 19 Feb 2024 at 5:10am
John Surman – Words Unspoken

(ECM 2789 / 5862035. Album review by Julian Maynard-Smith) 

JOHN SURMAN - Words Unspoken cover

Since the mid-sixties when he played baritone saxophone with the Mike Westbrook Band, John Surman has been one of the most instantly recognisable voices in jazz. In part, it’s because of his unusual choice of horns: soprano and baritone saxophones, plus the bass clarinet – a relatively rare beast in jazz.

More significantly, Surman’s sound on all three horns is very much his own, often suffused with the deceptive simplicity of folk songs and hymns. Surman might have lived in Oslo for many years, but he can still conjure up a profoundly English spirit of Albion.

His long relationship with ECM began with Barre Phillips’ Mountainscapes (1976), and the first ECM album under his own name was Upon Reflection (1979), the first of a number of multitracked recordings where he accompanies himself over rippling synthesizer lines. For his latest recording on ECM, he’s found the perfect musicians to combine the hypnotic qualities and unusual instrumentation of those multitracked solo albums with the spontaneous interplay of a live group. Vibraphonist Rob Waring had already proved himself sympathetic to this aesthetic on Surman’s previous album, Invisible Threads (2019), a trio performance completed by pianist Nelson Ayres. Throughout Words Unspoken, Waring’s vibraphone dances enchantingly with Rob Luft’s guitar, which often shimmers and sparkles like sunlight refracted on water; and underpinning it all while still leaving plenty of air are the drums of Thomas Strønen.

‘Pebble Dance’ opens the album with rippling vibraphone, guitar swells and arpeggios, and splashes of percussion. When Surman joins on soprano, it’s gently at first but building to free-jazz squalls. If these pebbles are dancing it’s on a storm-tossed shore, but they’re gradually swept towards a folk-like melody before cannoning into a rapid unison passage for a dramatic finish. The whole album glides beautifully between moods, from the dreamy impressionism of ‘Flower in Aspic’ to the slinky syncopation of the irrepressibly catchy ‘Hawksmoor’ – on which, as with ‘Pebble Dance’, there’s a sense not of moving from the melody towards an improvisation but the reverse, of a tune’s shape gradually forming like the silhouette of a tor from the Dartmoor mists of Surman’s youth. 

At seventy-nine, Surman is a long way from his youth. But he plays with such vigour and passion on this stunning album that one would never guess. Words Unspoken is a gorgeous addition to an already impressive discography. 

from https://londonjazznews.com

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