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John Surman | “Words Unspoken”

The Album Title of British Reedman’s John Surman’s

Words Unspoken Alludes to the Instant Musical Understanding Found by the Members of This Nimble Quartet

Featuring Vibraphonist Rob Waring, Guitarist Rob Luft and Drummer Thomas Strønen

Available February 16


“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 the British reedman John Surman in the liner notes for his new quartet album. “Quite often the impressions and stories can be widely varied, and yet somehow seem to make sense to the individuals concerned. This is one side of the title Words Unspoken – but the other refers to the way that I wanted us to approach the music as a group. I simply brought some ideas along to the musicians and, without discussing who would play which element and how the tunes would take shape, we would try and piece the elements together just by listening to each other and reacting accordingly.”

Surman’s open compositions here are frameworks encouraging musical debate as the players guide the collective sound to new destinations, and add striking statements of their own. The ensemble’s identity builds upon the understanding achieved by Surman and US vibraphonist Rob Waring who, like the bandleader, has long been a resident of Oslo. Surman and Waring previously collaborated on John’s 2017 trio recording Invisible Threads with Brazilian pianist Nelson Ayres. They are joined here by two musicians familiar to ECM listeners, British guitarist Rob Luft (lately heard on albums with singer Elina Duni), and Norwegian drummer Thomas Strønen, whose projects have included the ensemble Time Is A Blind Guide, Food (with Iain Ballamy), the trio Bayou (with Ayumi Tanaka and Marthe Lea), Parish (with Bobo Stenson) and more. Strønen’s most recent ECM appearance was as a member of Sinikka Langeland’s band on 2023 release Wind And Sun.

The Words Unspoken quartet is a resourceful and often exciting band, as the opening “Pebble Dance” immediately makes plain. It flies from the starting block with a flurry of notes from the vibraphone that establish a climate for swirling and energetic soprano saxophone, and an atmosphere of intensity stoked by taut drums and shimmering guitar.

Through the changing moods of the album each of Surman’s instruments comes to the fore. On “Hawksmoor”, the music begins as a lithe dance for bass clarinet and Strønen’s brushed drums, joined at the halfway mark by guitar and vibes. On title track “Unspoken Words”, the beautiful baritone sax has a tenderness and eloquence that John alone seems able to wrest from the big horn, his soulful soliloquy developed against a wash of complementary sound-colour from Luft and Waring. So it goes.

Surman, who turns 80 in 2024, has been a vital force in European jazz and adjacent genres for more than half a century, already establishing himself as a unique soloist in the 1960s in groups led by Mike Westbrook and Chris McGregor. The band called just The Trio, with Surman and Americans Barre Phillips and Stu Martin, was one of the defining improvising groups of its era, and it was with this line-up that Surman first appeared on ECM, on Barre Phillips’s Mountainscapes in 1976. This was followed, in 1978, by Surman’s Upon Reflection.

Since then, he has appeared on ECM in the broadest range of contexts. These range from solo recordings (including the acclaimed Private City and Road To St Ives) to large ensembles – among them the John Surman/John Warren Brass Project, the Proverbs and Songs project with the Salisbury Festival Chorus, and Free and Equal with London Brass. And from duos (with Jack DeJohnette, Howard Moody) to transcultural projects (Anouar Brahem’s Thimar trio with Dave Holland, and John Potter’s early music-aligned Dowland Project). Surman has collaborated with the string quartet Trans4mation (on The Spaces In Between and Corruscating), and fronted his own groups on the albums Nordic Quartet (with Karin Krog, Terje Rypdal and Vigleik Storaas), Stranger Than Fiction (with John Taylor, Chris Laurence and John Marshall) and Brewster’s Rooster (with John Abercrombie, Drew Gress and Jack DeJohnette.) He has also been an important contributor to projects led by Paul Bley, Miroslav Vitous, Tomasz Stanko, Misha Alperin and Mick Goodrick. In all, a richly creative discography.

Unspoken Words was recorded at Oslo’s Rainbow Studio in December 2022.


John Surman · Words Unspoken

ECM · Release Date: February 16, 2024

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