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John Surman: Words Unspoken


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John Surman: Words Unspoken
Englishman John Surman has been one of jazz's most important reedmen since his debut album on the progressive Deram label in 1969. From the start, on classic albums such as John McLaughlin's Extrapolation, Surman displayed a unique voice on the baritone sax, soprano sax, and bass clarinet, sometimes adding electronics to the mix. Since his first appearance on Manfred Eicher's groundbreaking ECM label in 1976, Surman has forged an idiosyncratic path, releasing solo, duo, and quartet albums, transcultural collaborations (such as the astonishing Thimar with oud player Anouar Brahem), work with string quartets, and large brass groups. His collaborator list is a Who's Who of modern jazz: Jack DeJohnette, Dave Holland, Terje Rypdal, Karin Krog, Paul Bley, Miroslav Vitous, John Abercrombie and many more.

On 2024's Words Unspoken, Surman's quartet includes American vibraphonist Rob Waring (who, like Surman, has long made Oslo his home), British guitarist Rob Luft and Norwegian drummer Thomas Strønen. Recorded at Oslo's Rainbow Studio in December 2022, the album is atmospheric, with the drums often played with brushes or mallets, Luft's guitar swelling and reverberating across the stereo spectrum, and Waring's vibraphone sometimes played pedal-up, with little sustain, in percussive patterns which may remind listeners of Steve Reich. Indeed, the tunes are jazz by instrumentation but, at times, sound more like minimalism; on tunes such as the opener, "Pebble Dance," repeating motifs are sounded on guitar and vibes, while Surman and Strønen comment above and below, until joining in a unison whirling dervish figure which reappears at several points. If some pieces frustratingly never reach any particular destination, the journey—which one suspects is the point here—is never less than beautiful.

The title track sets up echoing pads of guitar and vibes on which a typically searching Surman baritone solo arcs upward. The drumming is a highlight here, with a rumbling, booming bass drum taking the aural place of the absent double-bass, and beautifully-recorded gong-like cymbals. "Graviola" is a highlight, and repays careful listening; it is masterful the way the various instruments seamlessly and subtly alternate between unison voicing of short motifs to graceful, melodic soloing over Strønen's subtly swinging beat. On "Precipice," the leader introduces a middle-eastern tinge to his sprightly soprano sax melody, supported by dramatic malleted drums and Luft's harmonic volume swells. "Around The Edges" is aptly named, an enigmatic prelude for a song which never quite arrives. Better are "Onich Ceilidh," an upbeat tune with a memorable melody and a lovely dancing groove on the drums, and the closing "Hawksmoor," on which Surman's bass clarinet duets with Waring's vibes on a snaking melody which could work as a cue from a spy movie.

Surman certainly sounds ageless on Words Unspoken, his tone and agility undiminished at nearly 80 years old, and his quartet plays with sensitivity and grace. Drummer Thomas Strønen deserves particular praise for his beautifully varied sound and feel across these ten tunes. "It has always fascinated me hearing from people the many different images and messages that any one piece of music can conjure up in their imaginations," says Surman in the liner notes. This is indeed open and enigmatic music, most suitable for contemplative listening.

Track Listing

Pebble Dance; Words Unspoken; Graviola; Flower in Aspic; Precipice; Around the Edges; Onich Ceilidh; Belay That; Bitter Aloe; Hawksmoor.


John Surman
Rob Luft
Rob Waring
Additional Instrumentation

John Surman: baritone sax; baritone clarinet.

Album information

Title: Words Unspoken | Year Released: 2024 | Record Label: ECM Records

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