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Music Review: John Surman – Saltash Bells

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ECM Records is now in its 43rd year, having begun in 1969 as an outlet for Manfred Eicher to release some of his favorite music. His vision has always guided the label, regardless of whether the music had any “commercial” potential or not. Fortunately for all, some of the ECM releases have done very well, which has undoubtedly helped fund other, more adventurous (for lack of a better word) projects. Since 2009, there have been a few events marking the 40th anniversary of the label, the most recent being Celebration by Arild Anderson.

I mention all of this because the new release from John Surman, Saltash Bells reminds me in some ways of the record that launched a label (and empire), which is celebrating its 40th this year. That label is Virgin, and Sir Richard Branson’s very first release just happened to be Tubular Bells by Mike Oldfield. The use of the word “bells” in each title is one obvious similarity. But the real parallel is the completely solo nature of the recordings. In both, the artists play a wide variety of instruments, an amazing feat accomplished through the magic of the recording studio.

On Saltash Bells, John Surman is credited with soprano, tenor, and baritone saxophones, alto, bass, and contrabass clarinets, harmonica, and synthesizer. The way he mixes the various elements together on each of the 10 tracks is a marvel. Saltash Bells is his first solo album since A Biography of the Rev. Absalom Dawe way back in 1994. He has been quite busy playing in various group contexts in the intervening years. In fact, Saltash Bells may not have appeared at all but for an initially disappointing set of circumstances.

The project began as a proposed collaboration between filmmaker Odd Geir Saether and Surman for a documentary on the English West Country. Funding for the film fell through, but John continued making music anyway. What he came up with eventually resulted in the Saltash Bells album. He composed the 10:40 title track first, inspired by the sounds of the bells across the Saltash Passage, near where he grew up. I was a bit surprised to discover that the bell sounds were created entirely by synthesizer. They certainly sound like the real thing.

“Saltash Bells” provided a template for the rest of the album. There is an overall mood present, which is a sort of haunting and mysterious atmosphere. A great deal of the music paints a mental impression of a late, foggy night at the waterfront. As a resident of the Pacific Northwest, it is a sensation I am very familiar with.

Some of this is achieved through the use of synthesizers, but John Surman’s woodwinds provide the real key. This is especially noticeable during “Glass Flower,” “Dark Reflections,” and “Triadichorum.” Of these, the incredibly deep clarinet sound during the opening of “Glass Flower” is almost other-worldly.

The closing piece is titled “Sailing Westwards.” Besides the title track, this 10:37 cut seems to come closest to what John Surman had in mind. It is a nearly flawless composition, evoking a series of moods that seems to sum things up perfectly. The atmosphere is one of wonder, offered with a slowly evolving series of movements, and culminating beautifully with some (synthesized) bird-songs.

I would not go so far as to say that the ten pieces that make up Saltash Bells constitute a “concept” album. But as an evocation of the various emotions Saltash Passage brought to mind for John Surman, the album is extremely effective. What makes it so special for the rest of us is that we do not need to have ever seen the Passage to understand what is being expressed. Saltash Bells is a superlative realization of John Surman’s vision.

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