John Surman: Words Unspoken

The celebrated English reedman plays a set of minimalist, generally languid, modal originals with vibes, guitar and drums


Over his long career, John Surman’s has played some pivotal sessions, including Mike Westbrook’s Marching Song (Deram, 1969), his own Tales Of The Algonquin (Deram, 1971) with John Warren, and The Trio recordings with Barre Phillips and Stu Martin on Pye’s progressive Dawn label.

John McLaughlin’s Extrapolation (Polydor, 1969) with Surman on baritone was rightly deemed “one of the finest jazz records ever made in Europe” by the Penguin Guide To Jazz and awarded one of its coveted crowns. Surman also founded the groundbreaking saxophone trio S.O.S., named after its three protagonists, Surman, Mike Osborne and Alan Skidmore.

However, his drumless solo album Westering Home (Island, 1972) on which he played all instruments was a turning point, indicating a more cerebral and less visceral path than, for example, the coruscating jazz-rock of Morning Glory (Island, 1973). Upon Reflection (ECM, 1979) was the saxophonist’s debut for Manfred Eicher’s label and again Surman played all the instruments. Over the past 45 years he’s recorded over 20 albums for ECM, some with ensembles, others as solo projects.

Invisible Threads (ECM, 2018) featured Rob Waring on vibraphone and Waring accompanies him here again on Words Unspoken along with Norwegian drummer Thomas Strønen and British guitarist Rob Luft. This recent deployment of vibraphone is Surman’s first since Where Fortune Smiles (Dawn, 1971) with Karl Berger. But Waring’s playing here adds essential tonal colour as opposed to Berger’s angularity. Surman’s wailing soprano takes centre stage on the lively opener Pebble Dance, Strønen’s percussion adding a mesmeric rhythm to the piece. On the title track Surman’s plaintive baritone is underpinned by languid vibes and both Onich Ceilidh and Hawksmoor afford Luft the opportunity to solo engagingly.

In his sleeve note Surman explains the album’s title alludes to the diverse imagery or messages that a piece of music conjures-up in the imagination of the listener. But another interpretation is the spontaneous reaction by the group’s members to Surman’s compositional ideas, with fascinating results.

Pebble Dance; Words Unspoken; Graviola; Flower In Aspic; Precipice; Around The Edges; Onich Ceilidh; Belay That; Bitter Aloe; Hawksmoor (61.50)
Surman (ss, bar, bcl); Rob Luft (elg); Rob Waring (vib); Thomas Strønen (d). Oslo, December, 2022.
ECM 5862035