John Surman: Saltash Bells (ECM 2266)

Saltash Bells

John Surman
Saltash Bells

John Surman soprano, tenor and baritone saxophones, alto, bass and contrabass clarinets, harmonica, synthesizer
Recorded June 2009 and March 2011 at Rainbow Studios, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by John Surman and Manfred Eicher

Saltash Bells expands multi-reedist John Surman’s ECM cartographies in directions that are at once new and familiar. The album marks a return to the solo projects that so distinguished his contributions to recorded art in the 80s and 90s. Originally conceived as the soundtrack for a documentary on the English West Country that fell through the cracks, the music evolved from memories of Surman’s childhood in Devon, of which the local environs are cued by track titles throughout.

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Despite the fact that Surman’s solo efforts are known for incorporating—seamlessly, I might add—the technological adornments of synthesizers and digital delays, there’s always a taste of soil about them. Take, for instance, “Whistman’s Wood,” which opens the program with a program of its own in the form of pulsing, electronic signals beamed across a vista tilled by bass clarinet. An ancient spirit works the land, lifting arpeggios from their graves and animating them in such a way that respects their ability to sing. All this before Surman’s baritone proclaims its inner heart and unfolds it as a map for the journey to follow. Guided by a comet’s tail of soprano, he proceeds into the lonesome yet unbreakable bass clarinet of “Glass Flower.”

On the low reeds Surman is unmatched. His bass clarinet hovers as a sagacious presence over the oceanic currents of “On Staddon Heights” until a soprano joins in the swim, caressing every bubble to ensure it doesn’t break on the way to the surface. The same pairing ends the album with “Sailing Westwards,” further augmented by an exclusive appearance of harmonica. Aquatic textures also pervade the title track, which immediately follows “Ælfwin,” a robust yet lacey baritone solo. Between this and “Dark Reflections” (an unaccompanied piece for soprano), one can chart a defining contradiction of Surman’s playing: the higher the reed, the darker the sound, and vice versa. And in the solos especially, listeners can encounter the naked, self-directed nature of his writing.

The small congresses of “Triadichorum” and “The Crooked Inn” nevertheless pack visceral effect, rounding out one of Surman’s finest to date with the assurance that he still has decades more to say.

(To hear samples of Saltash Bells, click here.)

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