John Surman: Songs from the West Country

John Surman 2

Not much time goes by in our household without the music of John Surman being played; this week we’ve been listening again to a couple of albums he recorded in the 1990s that share a distinctive West Country ethos: Road to St Ives and A Biography of  the Rev. Absalom Dawe.  These albums epitomise how Surman, who was born in Tavistock, Devon in 1944, has often been inspired by his West country roots in the music that he has created since the 1970s.

Surman can be a difficult artist to pigeonhole: he’s a jazzman, obviously, but his compositions have drawn on folk, choral and other traditions, too.  As his official website puts it, ‘John Surman is one of the key figures in a generation of European musicians who have crucially expanded the international horizons of jazz during the past thirty years or so’.  Surman is also a multi-instrumentalist, playing saxophone, clarinet and keyboards, and most renowned as a master of the bass saxophone.  He has produced solo albums (such as the first two of my featured trio) on which he plays all the instruments, but has also collaborated with jazz musicians of renown from America and Europe, especially those who  record for the ECM label, for which Surman has mainly worked since the 1980s.  He plays in all kinds of settings, from small group to big band, and has produced albums that involve collaborations between himself and church organ (Proverbs and Songs, 1998 and Rain on the Window, 2008), with Jack de Johnette on drums and percussion (Invisible Nature, 2002), with a string quintet (The Spaces In Between, 2007) and with tenor John Potter singing 16th century compositions by John Dowland (In Darkness Let Me Dwell, 1999).

Road to St Ives is a set of gentle, lilting compositions, entirely a one-man effort, with Surman writing all the compositions and producing every sound heard on the album, building layers of sound as he plays melodies on bass clarinet and soprano and bass saxophones over a keyboard and percussion wash.

The album is inspired by the landscape and spirit of Cornwall, and while drawing on the English folk tradition, remains clearly in the jazz tradition. On the CD sleeve, Surman explains:

Most  of the  music  on  this  recording  has been inspired by the landscape and history of the county of  Cornwall in England.  I am not  Cornish.  My birthplace lies just to the east of the river Tamar, which forms the border between Devon and Cornwall.  However,  ever  since  my  first  visit  to  Land’s End, the county has held a special fascination for me. Its early inhabitants are traceable back to Paleolithic man. It has a language of its own, which remained in use up until the nineteenth  century.  With a rich fund of  folklore and legend in addition, I’ve found much to inspire me. The pieces are not intended to be musical  portraits of particular places or events, the titles being simply a collection of some of  the intriguing  place-names found on and around the road to St. Ives.

Surman’s soprano sax shimmers on this on the recording, lending tracks such as ‘Kelly Bray’ and ‘Perranporth’, with its sense of birdsong and birds wheeling and circling in flight, an ethereal air. In contrast, ‘BodminMoor, anchored by a bass figure on the piano, has a brooding air, but again with the saxophone suggesting wind, long views and birds in flight.  The most immediately memorable track is ‘Piperspool’, with its electronic noodling and breathy bass saxophone. The closing track, ‘Bedruthan Steps’, opens with synthesised notes that sound like distant church bells chiming.

In 1998 Surman produced a chamber orchestra version of Road to St. Ives. The work was commissioned and performed by the Bournemouth Sinfonietta.

Like many others, I regard A Biography of the Reverend Absalom Dawe as being John Surman’s most perfect achievement.  The album’s title refers to Surman’s great-great-grandfather, a country parson, and though there are no strings or vocals on this album, the form of many of the pieces is rooted in the English choral tradition, one of the musician’s earliest enthusiasms.  As a choirboy, and before he’d heard any jazz, he sang in West Country churches, and since the 1980s Surman has been reinvestigating these roots, especially on albums such as Proverbs and Songs (with organist Howard Moody and the Salisbury Cathedral Choir) and In Darkness Let Me Dwell, an album of songs by John Dowland performed by Surman and tenor John Potter.

On A Biography of the Rev Absalom Dawe, Surman once again plays bass saxophone as well as soprano sax, alto and bass clarinets, and keyboards. The electronic elements are limited and unobtrusive, and the keyboard’s bright tones are a good match for the fluid, breathy sounds of the wind instruments. The music is ethereal and atmospheric and the sound is crisp, the result of Surman recording each instrument separately and then mixing individual units into the whole. The compositions leap musical boundaries, with elements of contemporary classical composition, jazz, and European folk all being present.

The album opens with ‘First Light’, an atmospheric clarinet solo.  This leads into the beautiful, lilting melody of ‘Countless Journeys’. On ‘Twas but Piety’ a lyrical clarinet passage leads into a central section in which a jazzy saxophone improvisation begins over a funereal synthesised drone  before spiralling into a a passionate solo. ‘Wayfarer’ harks back to the sound of Road to St Ives, with a moody, reflective baritone sax solo played over a keyboard figure.

John Surman’s music transcends familiar boundaries. A deep love of the jazz tradition runs throughout his work, and he is equally affected by the melodic qualities of choral music – as a one-time choirboy – and by English folk music:

If I look back to what turned me on about music, it is what I heard before I ever came across jazz.

Much of his work is powerfully resonant of the landscape and tradition of the West Country, perhaps most especially on these two albums.


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