ECM 2789 / 586 2035

John Surman (baritone, soprano saxophone and bass clarinet); Rob Luft (guitar), Rob Waring (vibraphone); Thomas Strønen (drums)

Recorded 2022

John Surman is a majestic figure in European Jazz. He is old enough to remember the time when American jazz eclipsed jazz from all other areas. Surman was one of the first figures that gave European jazz a voice. He is that important. A distinctive player he follows in a baritone tradition that has included the sweet flowing Gerry Mulligan, the deep sonority of Harry Carney, the fleet technical prowess of Pepper Adams, the bop baritone of Leo Parker and the intricate lines and harmony of Serge Chaloff. Surman has developed a tone and sensibility that is uniquely his. A new album from such a major figure is an event. Surman’s baritone is deep, powerful and yet conveys a human voice, almost reassuring, with a wide range of timbres

In this album Surman seems to have adopted his own version of minimalist ideas. Gone is the turbulent voice of the 1960’s Trio that stormed across the European festival circuits captivating the audiences with its brio and fearless energy.

Any innovator in jazz faces a dilemma over time: how do they continue to play without repeating themselves, avoiding exploring paths that are tortuous and audience repelling? In other words: how do they remain relevant?

Surman has chosen to surround himself with young musicians. He is joined by Rob Luft on guitar, Rob Waring on vibraphone and Thomas Strønen on drums. It is an opportunity to continue the conversation that started with the music for Surman’s trio album ‘Invisible Threads’. This time he has added elements of percussion and some electronics.

Rob Luft has been selected as a BBC Radio 3 New Generations Artist, a graduate from NYJO (National Youth Jazz Orchestra) who studied at the Royal Academy of Music. His collaboration with Surman is a recent highlight of his growing career. Luft is an ensemble player with a ferocious technique that, for this album, is under wraps.

Rob Waring, like Surman, looks beyond jazz for his inspiration. He has spent time in Bali studying the music and traces of that influence can be felt in what he plays.

Thomas Strønen talking about some of his recent music said: ‘We are not necessarily talking to each other but always listening. Parallel musical ideas are going on at the same time with really big ears from all of us. It’s a challenging way of communicating—trusting that what you do is essential to what the others do but not in a conventional way.’

Surman long ago chose to accept the ECM aesthetic. His music in recent years has often been described as ruminative, melancholy, delicate and also cerebral. His proficiency in playing multiple instruments, including the soprano and baritone saxophones, bass clarinet, and synthesisers, allows him to create diverse textures and tones within his music. His approach to music, across the years, has been characterised by influences, incorporating elements from jazz, folk, classical, and world music.

‘Words Unspoken’ is Surman on the beautiful baritone. Full of gravitas and authority, the sound could fill a cathedral. The music is produced over a repetitious background; the deep sonority is held throughout until Surman soars towards the end of the piece reacting to the subtle vibes and the sound of the guitar and the soft thunder of the drums.

‘Pebble Dance’ opens with the vibes seemingly searching for a start point. Surman enters on soprano with a sonority close to a bagpipe. There is a controlled confident melody avoiding stridency, just a serpentine improvisation occasionally linking with the vibes.

A piece to encourage encores is ‘Onich Ceilidh’ It is the voice of pure Surman folk song. The lively dance rhythm expertly played by Strønen is backed by the whole group with Surman in the ascendent. Eventually, the bass clarinet underpins the rhythm as Rob Luft becomes the main voice. It is an exhilarating event that needs an audience of well lubricated, wild Celts.

Rob Luft leads into ‘Bitter Aloe’ with Surman and Waring commenting under his lead. It is intriguing how that lead can be swapped so that no one is really dominant even with in one piece

‘Hawksmoor’ for half its length is a duet between the bass clarinet and Thomas Strønen’s drums. A jaunty catchy tune that will have the audience whistling it after they leave. It is an apt finish to an album.

The writing on the album is the kind that dissolves imperceptibly into improvisation. The subtlety and the artistry are adventurous. The album is a deeply satisfying, significant experience from one of Europe’s leading voices.

You can also check out interview with John here.