CD review: John Surman

Saltash Bells
(ECM 279 8108)

The multi-reedsman’s first solo album for 18 years, and an amazing 40 years after his first one, Westering Home, makes perfect Sunday listening. It is not insistent, it doesn’t grab you by the collar and shake you, but it insinuates itself into your consciousness and slowly envelopes you in a most absorbing way.

Surman notes in a brief sleeve thank-you to his son, Pablo Benjamin, how electronics have changed down the years and now involve software and computer-triggering synths rather than the more basic looping tapes and keyboards of old, but he still keeps the digital accompaniments pretty simple and very much in the style we have grown accustomed to in his previous solo discs.

Over them he plays soprano, tenor and baritone saxophones, alto bass and contrabass clarinets and harmonica.

The melodies he weaves are quite baroque or classical in style and shape, with strong folk strains, and the sounds he gets from whatever instrument is attached to the reed are rich and mellifluous. The bari and bass clarinet are particularly magical in this music, forming a real connection between the electronics and the higher reeds. Just listen to them on Winter Elegy, for example.

Surman explains both the album’s title and the origins of his favoured sounds: “My father used to be a dinghy sailor, and on Wednesday evening in Saltash Passage – that’s the narrowest point between Devon and Cornwall – and from across the river there would be the sound of bell ringing practice at Saltash Church. As a kid, I loved the way the sound would echo across the water and all around the river valley. I would find myself inventing melodies as I listened to it. I’m pretty sure that’s where my fondness for the bell-like tonalities and repeating patterns of the synthesizer had its origin.”

It’s all there in the title track and elsewhere in this very beautiful and heartfelt album.

Categories: CD review

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