Wednesday, April 10, 2024

The Creative 'Flights of Fancy' of Multi-Reedist/Composer John Surman on "Words Unspoken"

John Surman : Words Unspoken ECM 2789

I have always been a fan of the British multi-reedist/composer John Surman ever since I heard his passionate baritone, scorch of the Earth playing, on John McLaughlin's seminal Extrapolation from 1969. I was an inspiring guitarist who was intrigued by the lightning-fast fretboard work, the melodic sensibilities, as well as the guitarist's penchant for unusual time signatures in his work. But what caught my attention was Surman's passionate, at times avant-garde yet still euphonic approach to the baritone saxophone. His pastorally influenced, folk-inspired soprano saxophone work caught me as quite beautiful while at the same time being exploratory. The perfect musical foil to the guitarist on that probing album.

Later I found Surman's work equally intriguing. The man was born in Devon, England in 1944, though he eventually relocated to Oslo, Norway with his long-term partner, the Norwegian jazz vocalist Karen Krog. This man's folk/pastoral sound is inspired by his native English countryside, with its sometimes Celtic influences, and has never seemed to leave this musician's creative psyche no matter how diverse his search for creativity has led him.

Surman's career follows a road map of experiences, a heuristic journey, probing and expanding to discover and follow what is true to his own inner musical gyroscope. During his trajectory, Surman has collaborated with the Rhodesian-born keyboard/composer Mike Gibbs; the classical/jazz bassist Chris Laurence; drummers John Marshall, Jack DeJohnette, and Peter Erskine; pianists Paul Bley, Chick Corea, and John Taylor; bassists Gary Peacock, Dave Holland, and Miroslav Vitous; guitarists John Abercrombie, John McLaughlin, Terje Rypdal and Mick Goodrick; trumpeters Kenny Wheeler and Tomasz Stańko: and also worked with arranger/composer Gil Evans. Along the way, he has written for String Quartets (Chris Laurence's Trans4mation Quartet) and Brass Ensembles (The Brass Project w/ John Warren). He once wrote and performed music in collaboration with bassist Barre Phillips for a ballet at the Paris Opera Sablier Prison with choreographer Carolyn Carlson. If there is one thing you can say about Surman's diverse musical career, he has certainly followed his own muse no matter where it took him.

John Surman Quartet
 John Surman, Thomas Strønen, Rob Luft, and Rob Waring (photo credit unknown)

Now approaching eighty, Surman is still creating distinct music that is relevant and often quite beautiful. His latest release Words Unspoken was released on ECM on February 16, 2024. Surman reunites with his American-born, Oslo-residing, vibraphonist Rob Waring who was also on Surman's 2018 beautiful release Invisible Threads. The rest of the quartet includes Norwegian drummer Thomas Strønen, the British guitarist Rob Luft, and Surman on baritone and soprano saxophone, bass clarinet, and synth effects. Surman has always been driven by the tonal aspects of the sounds he creates. That is why he has said that his use of three different reeds and the synth allows him an expanded creative palette that allows him to compose melodies that are outside of the jazz context. “The synthesizer allowed me to think in terms of landscape textures,”

The album has an ethereal quality to it, bewitching melodies that seem to invite the listener to be surrounded by the music's almost cinematic, landscape-aware feeling. There are ten compositions and the title track, "Words Unspoken," is an inference to how when a group of musicians tap into a vibe, there is a wordless musical connection that is symbiotic. These four certainly do find their common ground in Surman's articulation of this music.

"Hawksmore" starts out as a duo between Surman on his melodious baritone clarinet, with a Dolphy-like presence, and Strønen's deft snare work. Waring's tubular vibes come in to add another resonating tone to this ascending and descending romp. Luft's guitar is the final floating piece to this cinematic tableau. The music is light, playful, and an aural delight.

"Bitter Aloe" opens with Luft's picked notes played synchronously to Surman's undulant baritone. Luft as a young, somewhat ethereal guitarist is particularly sympathetic to Surman's musical goals. Waring adds his hollow, ringing vibe work to this intoxicating theme and creates a cloud-like airiness accentuated by Luft's delicate fretwork. Strønen's brushwork perfectly enhances this aerial adventure without ever weighing it down. Surman's reed work is transcendent.

The album continues with "Belay That" opening with Waring's vibes stating a brief wandering line. Surman enters with his sonorous baritone and the two have a friendly improvisational conversation. The song morphs into a repeating line laid out by Waring's ostinato and Rob Luft's facile guitar lines matched by Surman's resonating bari. There is a hypnotic feel to this music. A spell is cast and carries you into another almost surreal world of myth and wonder.

"Onich Ceilidh" is a Scottish folk-inspired composition that features Surman's serpentine soprano work. The music dances lithely like the title suggests. A dance party from the village of Onich in Scotland. You can feel the whirling dervish-like dance that the music inspires. Is it peat-flavored distilled spirits that bring on this feeling or is it infectious music that injects the spirit and frees you to dance? A phenomenal display of tonal artistry between Luft's soaring guitar, Waring's excited vibes, Strønen's percussive work, and Surman's at first soprano and later inspired bari work unifies this one so well.

The album continues with "Around the Edges," and it's gorgeously intoned baritone work. "Precipice", opens with some of Strønen's intuitive hand-driven percussion in conversation with Surman's sprite-like soprano and some resonating vibe work from Waring.

"Flower in Aspic," opens with some modulating sounds as Luft's delicate guitar leads to a plaintive Surman soprano, gently opening the landscape into a serene pastoral view. Waring adds his own tubular accents and Strønen's delicately wooshing cymbal work completes this aural picture.

Waring's vibes open "Graviola," with an ostinato pattern over which Surman plays his vibrant bass clarinet. He can be most expressive on this woody-sounding instrument and there is an otherworld-like feel to this. The music intensifies perceptively with Waring and Luft increasing the tonal range and pace, Luft especially adding a more urgent, excitable voice to the mix. Surman's bass clarinet also adds a bottom-end rhythmic roll here.

The title track "Words Unspoken," has a synth-like drone at the opening. Waring's vibraphone creates a hum in the background as Surman's reedy baritone and his bandmates get into what he calls "flights of fancy." Freedom of expression allows the group to organically create magic. A line is explored and the musicians respond which in turn directs how the group dynamic sound ultimately creates. Synergy in action with no need for words to be spoken.

The album ends with "Pebble Dance" with vibes making an opening intro before Luft's guitar, Waring's tubular sound along with Strønen's percussive mastery create a Middle Eastern motif, a drone over which Surman's soprano creates a slithery snake charmer-like trance. The alluring mood transports you into a bazaar-like scene with nomad onlookers mesmerized by the sinewy soprano of the English tonal charmer.