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Monday, July 1, 2024

John Surman – Words Unspoken (ECM, 2024)

By Don Phipps

Words Unspoken is a laid back, genteel collection of tunes that feels like lying prone on a raft floating down a winding river, looking up at passing cloud formations and bright blue skies above craggy rocky peaks that line the banks. Take the opening number “Pebble Dance,” where saxophonist/bass clarinetist John Surman’s birdlike soprano sax calls propel the piece forward over dance-like rhythms and patterns courtesy of Rob Waring’s vibraphone and Rob Luft’s guitar. The work concludes with an engaging unison of sax and vibraphone over a catchy theme.

Surman, who composed all of the tracks on the album, is once again in familiar territory. Many of his albums are introspective and more about mood than overpowering technique. Yet the technique is there, understated as is his way, and the compositions well-crafted and polished. Take his ethereal baritone sax solo on the title cut “Words Unspoken.” It’s like a hazy morning, brought home by Luft’s guitar, which sounds like birds circling on some distant beach. Surman’s control of the reed is most noticeable here. His attacks are precise, whether legato or staccato. And Luft and Waring create an atmospheric narrative which flows around his lines.

Like pink rhododendrons basking in the sun, oblivious to the world and at peace, the ballad “Flower in Aspic” features a warm back and forth between Surman’s soprano and Waring’s vibraphone. And “Onich Ceilidh” is most certainly road trip music, with Waring’s dancing lines and Luft’s soaring ones. Surman, who begins on soprano sax and ends on bass clarinet, contributes pied piper themes that lift the tune as it spins along.

Surman’s bandmates too have their special moments. Listen to Luft’s magical solo on “Graviola,” and the way Luft and Waring wind together like a strand of DNA helix. And drummer Thomas Stronen works his magic on the toms on “Precipice,” employing a syncopated line beneath Surman’s dancing soprano. Also noteworthy is his brush work on “Belay That,” where he keeps the 6/8 rhythm in constant motion.

An album of atmospherics and intimacy, Words Unspoken refrains from any kind of ostentatious display. It focuses on creating moods – and what beautiful moods these are. If hazy odes to life and peace are your cup of tea, this album is highly recommended.