Monday, October 29, 2012
Reviewed by: Ian Mann
“Saltash Bells” is a highly personal project which has been lovingly sculpted by Surman into an album of great beauty that will no doubt be greatly appreciated by his many fans.
(ECM 2266 - Bar code 279 8108)
Saxophonist and composer John Surman is a British musician with a global reputation. A stalwart of the UK jazz scene during the late 1960’s and throughout the 1970’s he appeared on many classic British jazz recordings either in his own name or under the leadership of others (John Taylor, Mike Westbrook, Mike Gibbs, John McLaughlin etc.). In 1979 he signed to producer Manfred Eicher’s ECM label where he became a pioneer (certainly in a jazz context) of solo recording on a series of albums throughout the 80’s and 90’s. It was a format Surman had first experimented with on the classic “Westering Home” (FMR, 1972) and it was a context that particularly suited the ECM aesthetic, helping Surman to gain an international following.
However despite his international success and move to Norway (where he lives with his partner the singer Karin Krog) Surman has never lost touch with his West Country roots as album titles such as “The Road St. Ives” (1990) attest. “Saltash Bells”, Surman’s first solo recording since 1994’s “A Biography Of The Rev. Absalom Dawe”, is inspired by Surman’s childhood memories of his native Devon. Evocative tune titles reference specific locations (“Saltash Bells”, “Whistman’s Wood”, “On Staddon Heights”) and the music is as atmospheric as the places it recalls and depicts.
Surman produces his multi-tracked, densely layered soundscapes on a variety of wind instruments – soprano, tenor and baritone saxophones, alto, bass and contrabass clarinets and even harmonica. There are also discreet smatterings of synthesiser providing colour, rhythm and texture and fleshing out the arrangements. Surman was one of the first jazz musicians to use the synthesiser as a textural and arranging device but as technology has moved on even he has struggled to keep pace and his notes freely and gratefully acknowledge the assistance of his son Ben with regard to the technical practicalities of the new breed of software synths.
As befits an album that is largely inspired by pleasant and cherished childhood memories the mood throughout the album is relaxed and positively bucolic. Each of the ten pieces is immaculately arranged and beautifully played with many of the items offering a profound sense of place. The tunes reference not only jazz but also folk sources plus Surman’s background in church and classical music.
It is perhaps no surprise that many of the pieces have a strong pictorial quality. The project was originally conceived as a collaboration with Norwegian photographer and film Odd Geir Saether which was intended to explore the English West Country in sound and vision. When the funding for the film failed to materialise Surman continued the project by channelling the remembered images of his childhood into sound alone. On the album the first of these is the opener “Whistman’s Wood”, an evocation of the mysterious petrified forest on Dartmoor with the timbre of Surman’s multi tracked reeds evoking a suitably “woody” feel, especially in the lower registers. Gently bubbling synthesiser adds an air of mystery. It’s unfortunate that Saether’s film was never made as this music would be the perfect accompaniment to the appropriate visual images. However thanks to Surman’s compositional, arranging and playing skills “Whistman’s Wood” and the subsequent compositions of this album convince as stand alone works of art in their own right.
The brief “Glass Flower” is a solo meditation on bass clarinet with Surman achieving a remarkable purity of tone and making maximum use of space in the best ECM tradition. It is calm, serene and deeply moving.
“On Staddon Heights” references the cliff tops at the mouth of Plymouth Sound and begins with a folk melody that may remind listeners of the work of label mate Jan Garbarek. Underpinned by synthesiser loops and the use of saxophone keypads as a form of percussion the tune involves into a kind of folk dance, lithe and uplifting, with Surman’s soprano sax sinuously tripping over his self created rhythmic backdrop.
The title of “Triadichorum” appears to acknowledge Surman’s love of church and choral music (he has written music for choirs and has performed in ecclesiastical settings including Salisbury Cathedral). Here Surman appears in triplicate on his favourite baritone saxophone evoking a folk like feel with ecclesiastical undertones.
“Winter Elegy” again evokes Garbarek with Surman blowing long interlocking melody lines above an organ like synthesiser loop. It’s interesting to hear Surman on tenor sax alongside his more usual soprano and baritone. Shut your eyes and you can almost see the frost glistening on the trees.
“Aelfwin” is a brief, often contemplative interlude for solo baritone sax which acts as a curtain raiser to “Saltash Bells” itself, one of two nautically inspired epics that are central to the album (the other is the closing “Sailing Westwards”).
“Saltash Bells” is inspired by Surman’s memories of sailing in his father’s dinghy on Saltash Passage and the sound of the bells from the local church ringing out over the water and echoing around the valley. Surman credits these boyhood experiences with giving him his love of bell like tonalities and his fondness for creating repeating patterns on the synthesiser. The piece evolves in an unhurried across a rippling synthesiser backwash with Surman appearing to converse with himself on his numerous horns. The moods shift from spacious and reflective to something more urgent as his reeds hoot and flutter before the piece concludes with the sound of pealing bells.
“Dark Reflections” is another charming set piece, this time multi tracked soprano saxes pirouette nimbly around each other. The piece is delightfully light and airy and for once seems to be at odds with its title.
Even shorter “The Crooked Inn” is another charming folk dance with a baritone sax bass line providing the impetus for the frisky blend of horns cavorting above.
At ten and a half minutes the closing “Sailing Westwards” matches the title track in its scope and ambitions. Again it’s a highly personal piece with its roots in Surman’s youthful love of sailing. Harmonica adds a distinctive, earthy element to the now familiar blend of horns and synths. There’s an urgency to the piece that evokes being out on the open water with the clamorous synths replicating the clatter of ropes against the mast. Surman’s soprano is brisk, purposeful and occasionally squally above the rhythmic impetus of synths, harmonica and what sounds like either looped baritone sax or bass clarinet. At the close the sound of birdsong is a final reminder of the gently bucolic nature of the whole project.
“Saltash Bells” is a highly personal recording which has been lovingly sculpted by Surman into an album of great beauty that will no doubt be greatly appreciated by his many fans. It touches many of his bases and while some may bemoan a lack of conventional jazz swing it’s still the kind album that slowly grows on the listener. Everything is carefully and delicately stitched together and although there are no overt displays of technique the standard of musicianship is immense with engineers Jan Erik Kongshaug and producer Manfred Eicher helping Surman to realise his vision on a typically immaculate ECM recording.
Surman brings this music to the London Jazz Festival on Sunday 18th November when he appears at the Queen Elizabeth Hall at 2.00 pm. He will play a solo set based on the “Saltash Bells” material and will also present his new work “Lifelines” for piano, saxophones and the Bolsterstone Male Voice Choir. See http://www.londonjazzfestival.org.uk for details.
The work will be premièred the previous afternoon at Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival. See http://www.hcmf.co.uk
JAZZ MANN FEATURES
The sun shines on the final day of an excellent festival.
Ian Mann soaks up the vibes at Cheltenham Jazz Festival.