John Surman: Road To Saint Ives (ECM 1418)


John Surman
Road To Saint Ives

John Surman bass clarinet, soprano and baritone saxophones, keyboards, percussion
Recorded April 1990 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Although we might feel tempted to take Road To Saint Ives, one of John Surman’s most stunning solo albums to date, as a portrait of its titular coastal town, Surman states in his liner notes that such is not the case. Aside from the peppering of folk-inspired melodies in the soprano solos, the music breaks its own ground on the way toward unique improvisatory continents. Among those solos, “Polperro” makes for a transportive opener, while the echo effect of “Perranporth” dances on a cloud of whimsy. These solos are the heart of everything that makes Surman such a listeners’ gift. Their quality of tone and pitch speaks of the supremely nuanced command he has over his instruments. Each has the makings of antiquity blown through its core, as if webs of time were being pulled into all-encompassing songs. Surman is likewise a master of the miniature, as exemplified by the album’s shortest track, “Trethevy Quoit,” in which a crunchy flock of low reeds sounds one of the most memorable congregations in the program. Building up from these are the ensemble pieces in which he overdubs a chain of settings. From Michael Nyman-esque forest walks (“Rame Head”) to flirtations with his favored sequencer (“Mevagissey”), he explores the contours of the most lyrical baritone one can imagine. One moment we are gliding through a classic sci-fi cityscape while the next finds us skirting the edge of a piano-infused drone (“Bodmin Moor”). And one can hardly ignore the multifaceted sound of his bass clarinet, which floats playfully on every ripple of “Piperspool” but which weeps liquid gold against the prayerful organ of “Tintagel.” Surman’s lyricism seems to mourn the extent of its own beauty in this, his deepest nod. So too may we lose ourselves in gamelan feel of “Bedruthan Steps,” where that unmistakable soprano darts in and out of every temple as if the entire complex were but an ocean reef, every note a fish that swims its coves as nature itself must breathe.

Like all of Surman’s solo albums, this is a dream made real.

<< Kenny Wheeler Quintet: The Widow In The Window (ECM 1417)
>> Jan Garbarek: I Took Up The Runes (ECM 1419)

4 thoughts on “John Surman: Road To Saint Ives (ECM 1418)

  1. Personally the handfull of all-solo albums Surman has made are easily my very favorite of his works-although his other projects are clearly superior music as well. There’s just something so personal and intimate when Surman does these one-man projects He’s still going strong-hopefully for a LONG time to come-llong live John Surman!

  2. Love your writing as much as I love John Surman’s playing! Inspired idea to focus on ECM – my favourite label as well as the most distinctive brand, both musically and visually. Look forward to reading more excellent reviews.

    1. And I enjoy writing about Surman’s playing almost as much as I love listening to it! It’s just so evocative that one can’t help but wax poetic about every note he plays…

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