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John Surman Saltash Bells Review

Album. Released 2012.  

BBC Review

A solo LP of great merit that pays tribute to its maker’s West Country upbringing.

John Eyles 2012

For many devotees of saxophonist John Surman, his solo albums are the quintessential recordings in his extensive and diverse discography. Following his 1979 ECM debut, Upon Reflection, the label regularly released fine solo albums such as Road to St Ives (1990). But, as the time since A Biography of the Rev. Absalom Dawes (1995) has increased, many feared it was his last solo album. All of which makes the release of Saltash Bells particularly welcome.

Whatever expectations a solo album by a saxophonist conjures up, Saltash Bells is likely to belie them. On it, Surman plays soprano, tenor and baritone saxophones, plus alto, bass and contrabass clarinets, harmonica and synthesisers. In the studio, he multi-tracked the instruments to build up elaborate soundscapes that could be mistaken for a large ensemble – but they are entirely Surman’s work.

This music was originally going to accompany a film exploring the West Country, where Surman was born and raised. Funding for the film did not materialise, but Surman persisted, inspired by his own childhood memories: “My father used to be a dinghy sailor, and we’d go out on a Wednesday evening on Saltash Passage... From across the river there would be the sound of bell ringing practise at Saltash Church.”

The album’s title track and centrepiece does justice to such recollections. Surman paints an aural picture featuring realistic bell-like tones, created on the synthesiser, overlaid with interweaving melodic lines on the reed instruments. Although they were recorded separately, he manages to play his different instruments so that they sound like they are responding to each other in real time, a stunning feat.

The closing track, Sailing Westwards, is just as impressive. The main theme has the pastoral quality typical of Surman compositions, its long melodic line owing as much to English folk music as to jazz. The inclusion of harmonica in the ensemble gives it added poignancy.

In contrast to such multi-layered tracks are truly solo pieces like Glass Flower, a bass clarinet feature, and the baritone saxophone solo, Ælfwin. Their stark beauty emphasises the breadth of Surman’s talent and the scale of this achievement.

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