John Surman – Saltash Bells
(ECM 2266. CD Review by Chris Parker)
This is John Surman’s seventh solo recording (his first, Westering Home, was released by Island in 1972; subsequent albums are all on ECM, including his most recent, 1994’s A Biography of the Rev. Absalom Dawe), so as soon as its first track, ‘Whistman’s Wood’ begins, the overall sound is immediately recognisable, unmistakably solo Surman.
The wood in question, a petrified forest on Dartmoor, is, according to Surman, a ‘very strange and spooky place’, so his dark baritone chug and clarinet swirls over tinkling synthesisers and slightly eerie popping percussive effects tie his music to a specific place in a manner entirely characteristic of him. Indeed, the title track was inspired by the sounds of the bell-ringing practice in Saltash, Cornwall, Surman used to hear on sailing trips with his father in a dinghy on Saltash Passage: ‘I loved the way the sound would echo across the water … 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 synthesiser has its origin.’
Over said synthesiser sounds (brought up to date, from analog to digital, with the help of his son, Pablo Benjamin) Surman plays some of his most lyrical and affecting solos, on all his reeds, and even manages to add harmonica to the background of ‘Sailing Westwards’.
In pleasing contrast to the gutsy power and roiling energy of his early work with the likes of SOS and the Westbrook band etc., Surman’s intensely personal solo work has enabled him to access his softer, more contemplative side, and Saltash Bells is a fine addition to an admirable body of recordings.