Music

John Surman's 'Invisible Threads' Is Music for Quiet Spaces

Photo courtesy of ECM Records

John Surman's trio create a space where a listener can drift along without getting tired. There's an energy to the playing that lifts one into a pleasant state and a good-humor to the enterprise as a whole.

Invisible Threads
John Surnam

ECM

19 Jan 2018

Imagine a jazz trio without a bassist or drummer. It's been done before, but rarely and with very mixed results. The experimental English composer, saxophonist, and clarinetist John Surman takes this challenge on with the assistance of Brazilian pianist Nelson Ayres and the expatriate American vibraphonist Rob Waring. The results are soft and melodic with sparks of individual artistry flashing across the musical spectrum. Surman wrote 11 of the dozen pieces here with the particular players in mind. The 12th cut is Waring's "Summer Song" whose gentle atmospherics fit in well with the other compositions on the disc.

The trio takes turns at leading the music through its sonic evolutions. They don't harmonize as much as pass the baton forward towards a point where all three seem to play different tunes that somehow blend instead of making a cacophony of noise and then separate again without losing its (dare I say it?) invisible thread. Take "Autumn Nocturne", for example. It begins with Ayres soloing on a melancholy theme. Waring's vibraphone then adds a shadow to the tune, and Surnam enters soon after with a series of horn notes that resemble bird calls and other natural resonances. The three seem to be on separate journeys but play at the same time until about five minutes into the piece when their voices move at different, distinct tempos. Surman's playing becomes more insistent then disappears. The result resembles a journey in which one feels one with the road and identifies the individual elements — trees, birds, and such — then finds oneself pleasantly lost in the woods before coming upon the end of the trail and leaving it all behind.

As the titles of the tracks suggest, the songs frequently have geographic/environmental themes, often with spiritual connections (i.e., "On Still Waters", "Within the Clouds", "Byndweed", "Another Reflection"). The various tracks suggest the memory of places more than the places themselves. The album's mood is reflective. Perhaps this is due to the very nature of playing softly. Even when Surman's horn raises its voice, as on "Concentric Circles", it never screeches or blares.

This is jazz meant for a quiet room. The trio creates a space where a listener can drift along without getting tired. There's an energy to the playing that lifts one into a pleasant state and a good-humor to the enterprise as a whole. The mutual respect the musicians have for each other is evident by the space in which they give themselves to play. The silence between the instruments and the attentive pacing in which they perform suggests they are carefully listening to each other rather than just waiting for their turn.

The disc was recorded at Oslo's Rainbow studio in July 2017 and produced by Manfred Eicher. Perhaps the very internationality of the musicians contributes to the universality of the music. One would not be able to identify the songs' national roots as much as their natural ones. The instruments capture the discreet and unobtrusive sounds that exist in halcyon circumstances, the still, small voice that operates as an invisible thread that connects all things.

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