John Surman's Invisible Threads ECM
The multi-instrumentalist John Surman has been on my radar since I first heard his resolute baritone and lilting soprano saxophone work on John McLaughlin’s superb album Extrapolation from 1969. At the time I made note of his playing which could be fiercely aggressive, dartingly ephemeral or wrenchingly poignant. His baritone work on "It's Funny" from that album is just a tour de force of expression. He was clearly someone to follow.
Over the years I enjoyed his expressive forays into ambient soundscapes, progressive jazz and abstract minimalism on such albums as his The Amazing Adventures of Simon Simon with the drummer Jack DeJohnette from 1981, or his work with the late great guitarist John Abercrombie, the bassist Marc Johnson and the drummer Peter Erskine from the 1992 album November.
His unique command of baritone and soprano saxophones, synthesizers and the difficult to master bass clarinet made him an in-demand player across the European continent. The Englishman from county Devon eventually found a home in Norway where he now resides, but no matter how eclectic his work became he never lost his sound, a sound that at its core is based on English and Celtic folk music. He has recorded over forty albums as a leader and been on over a hundred recordings as a sideman. No matter how abstract the music or how unusual the setting, listening to John Surman play is like taking a stroll through the English countryside.
His latest album Invisible Threads on ECM, is scheduled to be released in January 19th. The master multi-instrumentalist offers a suite of music on twelve original compositions, all but one composed by Surman. On this drumless, bassless trio, Surman is joined by the Brazilian pianist Nelson Ayres, who he was first introduced to by the drummer Jack DeJohnette, and the classically trained percussionist, vibraphonist and marimba player Rob Waring, who is New York born and now an associate professor at Oslo Academy of Music.
The pastoral quality of Surman’s music is evident from the first feathery notes of his soprano saxophone on the opener “At First Sight.” Ayres and Waring compliment his musings with deft and nuanced accompaniment.
“Autumn Nocturne” is at first a slow dirge-like composition that starts with a solo piano intro by Wares before Waring’s tubular vibraphone enters. When Surman’s soprano is heard, the composition turns lighter, more uplifting with a Tango-like rhythm that the three musicians skillful weave patterns through like a troupe of accomplished dance partners.
The impressionistic “Within the Clouds” is a delightful display of the remarkable control, imagination and fluidity of John Surman on the bass clarinet. Clearly in a class by himself on this instrument, he conjures up images of weightless suspension using the deep throated woody sound of this marvelous instrument. The delicate piano vibes accompaniment is reminiscent of the work of Gary Burton and Chick Corea on their seminal work “Crystal Silence.” Just take a moment to immerse yourself in the beauty of the sounds these three create. It’s is like a musical meditation.
“Bynweed” is another pretty ballad of Surman’s and a clear example of his tendency to find folk-like melodies and expand on them. Ayres piano is delicate and willowy, Waring’s vibes have a clarity and tone that resonates like tubular bells. Surman’s sinewy soprano comes in late and immediately brings to mind a scene of horseback riding through an English pasture.
Surman’s evocative bass clarinet returns on the haunting “On Still Waters.” His ability to let the deep woody tone of his instrument hover in the air like a dense morning fog on a still lake is remarkable. Ayres and Waring play in step with him adding a light, mist-like envelope for him to play in. The three have an amazing ability to create atmospheric surroundings that transport you to the place they are describing musically.
The remaining repertoire includes the beautiful “Another Reflection” with Surman on soprano; “The Admiral,” an Olde English seafaring tale with Surman on his bellowing baritone saxophone and Waring on his distinctive marimba. Ayres plays the processional melody majestically maintaining the pace and melody throughout as Waring and Surman harmonize around the nautical theme.
“Pitanga Pitomba” is a reference to two fruit trees found native to Brazil. Waring’s mellow marimba gives this one a distinctively playful feel and Ayres piano opens more expansively and his interplay with the saxophonist is special. Surman chooses his soprano on this composition playing in a most light-hearted manner. His performance is Pan-like; a joyful dance through a magical forest.
On pianist Ayres’ composition “Summer Song,” we get another fanciful foray into the joys of a season, this one celebrating Summer. The group interplay is at its most unified here as the three musicians waltz around in empathetic simpatico.
The descriptive “Concentric Circles” is a study in converting geometry into music. The trio swirl their individual voices creating eddy currents of repeating motion. Surman’s baritone repeats circular patterns as Waring and Ayres delicately weave their two percussive instruments into complimentary vortices of sounds. The three create a whirlwind of circular motion that is somehow harmonically complimentary.
“Stoke Dameral” is a parish in the county of Devon, England and for Surman is a reference to home. The baritone’s lustrous sound that Surman produces here is so uplifting for such a deep registered instrument. He plays the lumbering instrument with such delicacy and lightness that it is hard to believe it is a baritone at times.
I’ve always loved the deep gutsy sound of a baritone saxophone, it is often used as a lower register adjunct to other instruments that play the melody. In John Surman’s hands, we hear an instrument released from its traditional role and expanded into a truly marvelous vehicle for expression. His playing on the closer “Invisible Threads,” is a wonderful opportunity for him to showcase his sensitive facility on the instrument and he simply caresses you with his warm, expressively throaty tone. There is a raw gentleness to his playing that is quite impressive.Ayres and Waring both play with a deliberate delicateness and refined nuance that is delightful.