Created as an evocation of Surman’s West Country childhood, it’s a movingly intimate, even domestic work by a veteran saxophonist which nevertheless sounds sleek and forward-looking.
Although Surman has been working with synthesizers since the 70s, his ‘note on electronics’ included here thanks his son, Pablo Benjamin, for helping him “to find exactly the sounds that I was searching for” on the new generation of software synths. It’s a sound that connects right back to the gleaming studio productions of 1970s synth pioneers rather than the currently vogue for ‘noise’ or analogue synthesis.
Not every track features electronics. “Glass Flower”, tenderly essayed on bass clarinet, sounds vulnerably naked, while “Ælfwin” coats Surman’s solo tenor sax in subtle reverb. “Triadichorum” and “The Crooked Inn” are for multi-tracked reeds, the multi-tracking so close on the latter it might be mistaken for delay.
On “Winter Elegy”, Surman’s bass clarinet tugs against the looping flow of the synthesizer, while his tenor sours, lyrically unfettered. A soprano line mirrors the tenor and interjects with glossolalia.
For all their textural richness, few of these songs travel far. In their psychogeographical stasis they approach pure ambience, but they are terribly seductive.
The album’s final track, “Sailing Westwards” ends with the trills and burrs of Surman’s multi-tracked horns bathed in the sound of birdsong. On its intro a harmonica shades a clarinet track, and then a soprano saxophone develops the melody more fully. Tidal synth then washes over and subsumes everything, clearing the way for new, more incisive solos from Surman on soprano reed and harmonica, the latter meshing beautifully with the synth track.
Like the title song, “Sailing Westwards” is a near-perfect integration of acoustic and electronic sound. The synth on “Saltash Bells” itself is multi-tracked, the first track being a lambent corona burnishing Surman’s soliloquy on reeds; the second a tintinnabulary sequence which prefigures the composition’s ending on a peal of bells, sounding ghostly over the Tamar estuary on a field recording.
This is just the latest instalment in an occasional series of solo albums that Surman began in 1972 with Westward Home (Island). It’s at least as satisfying as any, and I feel it may worm its way into my affections as the best of them.
John Surman soprano, tenor and baritone saxophones, alto, bass and contrabass clarinets, harmonica, and synthesizer