John Surman: Invisible Threads (ECM)

Review of album by baritone/soprano saxophonist and bass clarinetist

Cover of John Surman album Invisible Threads on ECM
Cover of John Surman album Invisible Threads on ECM

Invisible Threads is something of an international affair. Baritone/soprano saxophonist and bass clarinetist John Surman, with five decades of recording credits as a leader and sideman behind him, hails from England but resides in Norway. So does Rob Waring, the mallets player, although he is originally from New York. And Nelson Ayres, the pianist, is Brazilian. That there is a global undercurrent to the music they produce together is not all that surprising, but those flavors are subtler than you might imagine. “Pitanga Pitomba,” one of the 11 tunes composed for the album by Surman (the 12th, “Summer Song,” is Ayres’), flirts with tango but never truly succumbs to its conventions. Instead, the trio dances around the edges of the familiar rhythm, ultimately putting it aside in favor of something more elusive. “Byndweed” owes as much to European classical traditions as the Brazilian sway suggested by Ayres.

Surman initially envisioned the project as a duet set with Ayres, but the decision to include Waring’s vibraphone and marimba was a wise one—his bright tones act as a balance to Surman’s deeper ones, as in “The Admiral,” where, soon enough, they find a common place in which to reside.

Manfred Eicher’s production is, of course, unfussy and crystalline, allowing for each member of the trio to avail himself of opportunities to shine. But stepping out for solo time is hardly the point here. Invisible Threads is an ensemble effort first and foremost, the players sharing an innate understanding that the act of group improvisation outweighs individual statement. There’s a unity to these pieces, and a bond that comes naturally to the players. 

Preview, buy or download the album Invisible Threads by John Surman on Amazon.

Read Shaun Brady’s review of Saltash Bells, a solo album by John Surman recorded for ECM.

Jeff Tamarkin

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Jeff Tamarkin is the former editor of Goldmine, CMJ, Relix, and Global Rhythm. As a writer he has contributed to the New York Daily News, JazzTimes, Boston Phoenix, Harp, Mojo, Newsday, Billboard, and many other publications. He is the author of the book Got a Revolution: The Turbulent Flight of Jefferson Airplane and has contributed to The Guinness Companion to Popular Music, All Music Guide, and several other encyclopedias. He has also served as a consultant to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, NARAS, National Geographic Online, and Music Club Records.