JJ 01/84: John Surman – Such Winters Of Memory

Forty years ago, Simon Adams was impressed by Surman's ability to bring ideas and memories to life in sound. First published in Jazz Journal January 1984


One of John Surman’s strengths has been his ability to match the sound he makes to the ideas or, as on this album, the memories he wants to evoke. His music is con­sistently evocative, both visually and lyrically, and the multi-layered and often highly complex and structured tone-poems he writes suggest precise imagery.

This album finds him developing those strengths. For example, Seaside Postcard takes the idea of a long forgotten summer holiday brought back to life by an old postcard and translates it into a musical memory. Unrecognisable lyrics float in and out of a dream­like synthesiser and recorder back­ing which gradually becomes clearer, the words of the vocals more distinct. As the fog of time clears, so the music allows us to visualise that long-forgotten holi­day. Sunday Morning uses the same technique, this time evoking a pastoral Sunday morning worship in church. Over a repetitive back­ing track, Surman on baritone pieces together the image until, with the addition of plainsong chanting and a swooping, transcendent soprano solo, the imagery is in place, the picture complete.

The use of synthesisers and multi-tracking in no way detract from the essential clarity both of Surman’s writings and of his own saxophone playing, which is both gentle and all-powerful, intimate and all-embracing in its range and timbre. The layers of sound and the electronic settings employed en­hance the imagery rather than disguise it, furthering an overall sound which is a rich mixture of soulful jazz and swinging rhythms, bitter and sweet. The whole effect is sublime in its coherence and completeness; there is no gim­mickry here.

Space forbids detailed examina­tion of each track; or the contribu­tions of Krog and Favre, both of which complement Surman per­fectly. One surprise is Surman’s piano playing on the brief extract from Coltrane’s Expressions. It was recognisably Coltrane’s music, but the sound was unmistakably Sur­man’s. I could have listened to a whole album of that track.

Saturday Night; Sunday Morning; My Friend; Seaside Postcard 1951 (25.15) – On The Wing Again; Expressions; Mother Of Light; Persepolis (20.00)
John Surman (bs/sps/bcl/r/p/syn/v); Karin Krog (v/syn/tam); Pierre Favre (d). Recorded Dec. 1982, Oslo.
(ECM 1254)