Multireedist John Surman’s first solo effort in nearly two decades is a deeply autobiographical affair, consciously evoking his youth in the English West Country. The title, Saltash Bells, references the chimes of a church in Cornwall that Surman recalls hearing from his sailor father’s dinghy, as the two navigated the narrow passage between Cornwall and his own native Devon.
But even without knowing Surman’s life story, most of the elements are there in the music: the tolling bells, in the form of echoing synthesizers; the cold, gray mists, represented by Surman’s lonely, yearning baritone sound. Melodies hint at timeless folk songs, while a surging clarinet suggests a distant foghorn. Nostalgia constantly threatens, and on tracks like “Winter Elegy” a note of sweetness creeps in, but for the most part Surman’s multitracked odes maintain an austere longing. The final track, “Sailing Westwards,” is an epic seafaring narrative crewed by nearly all of Surman’s instruments, including a new recruit: a mournful harmonica that weaves alluringly around his intoxicating soprano.