Words Unspoken

John Surman

The album title – Words Unspoken – alludes to the instant musical understanding found by the members of this nimble quartet assembled by great British reedman John Surman. „My idea was to put together some musical ideas that would offer a collective sense of purpose but still be open enough to allow each of us to suggest other ways of developing the material together. Everything fell into place immediately. But I soon realized it wasn‘t so much the musical ideas that made it work, it was the musicians.” Surman and US vibraharpist Rob Waring – both residents of Oslo – had previously collaborated in John’s Invisible Threads trio with Nelson Ayres, but the associations with Norwegian drummer Thomas Strønen and UK guitarist Rob Luft were new.  With these four quick-witted players, all debate takes place in the music, stimulated by Surman’s strongly melodic themes and improvisational imagination.  Words Unspoken is issued as the quartet gears up for international touring.
Der Albumtitel – Words Unspoken – spielt auf das unmittelbare musikalische Verständnis an, das die Mitglieder dieses Quartetts füreinander haben. "Meine Idee war es, einige musikalische Ideen zusammenzustellen, die einen kollektiven Sinn ergeben, aber immer noch offen genug sind, damit jeder von uns eigene Anreize geben kann, wie das Material gemeinsam entwickelt wird. Das Konzept funktionierte auf Anhieb. Aber ich merkte schnell, dass dafür nicht die musikalischen Ideen, sondern die Musiker verantwortlich waren." Surman und der US-amerikanische Vibraphonist Rob Waring – beide in Oslo ansässig – hatten zuvor in Johns Trio Invisible Threads mit Nelson Ayres zusammengearbeitet, aber die Verbindung mit dem norwegischen Schlagzeuger Thomas Strønen und dem britischen Gitarristen Rob Luft ist neu. Mit diesen vier schlagfertigen Spielern findet ein reger Austausch in der Musik statt, angespornt durch den ausgeprägten Melos der Themen und den improvisatorischen Erfindungsreichtum von Surman. Words Unspoken erscheint während sich das Quartett auf eine internationale Tournee vorbereitet.
Featured Artists Recorded

December 2022, Rainbow Studio, Oslo

Original Release Date


  • 1Pebble Dance
    (John Surman)
  • 2Words Unspoken
    (John Surman)
  • 3Graviola
    (John Surman)
  • 4Flower In Aspic
    (John Surman)
  • 5Precipice
    (John Surman)
  • 6Around The Edges
    (John Surman)
  • 7Onich Ceilidh
    (John Surman)
  • 8Belay That
    (John Surman)
  • 9Bitter Aloe
    (John Surman)
  • 10Hawksmoor
    (John Surman)
Hypnotic and many of its antonyms—stimulating, arousing, reviving—are old school hyperbole which very often separates the hack from the veteran of critical science. But sometimes those everyday words are exactly what need to be said to tell of music unlike everyday and most others. ‘Words Unspoken’ is just that.
Mike Jurkovic, All About Jazz
As he approaches his eightieth year on the planet, John Surman chooses not to look back, but to move ever forward. Backed by a quartet featuring vibraphonist Rob Waring, guitarist Rob Luft, and drummer Thomas Strønen, the British saxophonist composes a set of tunes with wide open spaces for ‘Words Unspoken’, the better to let his compadres express themselves. […] With Strønen, who tends to slip into the background even as he drives the songs, at his peak, Surman ends the record with the bluesy swing of ‘Hawksmoor,’ just to prove he’s still mindful of jazz tradition. The jazz vet may be entering his ninth decade with ‘Words Unspoken,’ but he’s clearly devoted to keeping the music fresh and forward-looking.
Michael Toland, The Big Takeover
Surman’s open compositions are frameworks that encourage musical debate as the players guide the collective sound to new destinations, adding striking statements of their own. As a leader, this has often been a key element in Surman’s recordings, but it somehow feels particularly poignant here. The ensemble’s identity builds upon the understanding that develops between the musicians, as becomes clear from the first few bars onwards of the album’s stunning opener ‘Pebble Dance’. There’s a precision and unity wrapped within a beautiful free spirit to this music that appears to herald a new dawn, with the quartet, led by Surman’s fiery effervescent soprano sax, producing what is undoubtedly one of the musical highlights of the year so far. There are oft-changing moods throughout this album, but the atmosphere remains a constant – the quartet’s intuitive nature softly rises to the surface in so many compelling ways. On the title track ‘Unspoken Words’, Surman’s soulfully played baritone sax conjures images of love and loss, with such tenderness and eloquence. ‘Flower in Aspic’ is awash with texture and characterful melody, Luft’s beautiful guitar leading a path for Surman’s soprano sax to follow. The combination of Waring’s vibes and Luft’s guitar works wonderfully well together on many of the tracks, creating, along with Strønen’s sensitive drumming, a magic carpet of colour and sound for Surman to fly with.
Mike Gates, UK Vibe (Five stars)
The writing on the album is the kind that dissolves imperceptibly into improvisation. The subtlety and the artistry are adventurous. The album is a deeply satisfying, significant experience from one of Europe’s leading voices.
Jack Kenny, Jazz Views
Dans cet espace de cristal, partout on progresse à petits pas, entre le dit et le pressenti, porté par la seule assurance que nul énoncé explicite, nul discours jamais n’embrassera dans sa totalité la musique – et le sentiment. Du grand art à la Surman.
Louis-Julien Nicolaou, Telerama
Surman ist zwar mit allen seinen drei Instrumenten der Primus inter Pares, aber eben doch einer von vieren. Mit Ausnahme vielleicht des fulminanten Soprano-Flugs in ‘Pebble Dance’. Oder des Titelstücks ‘Words Unspoken’, das am ehesten eine balladeske Feier von Surmans tiefgründig leuchtendem Bariton-Sound ist. Insgesamt ist das Album ein vielfältig komponiertes, auch nach dem x-ten Hören überraschendes und anrührendes Beispiel spontanen gemeinsamen Erfindens.   
Peter Rüedi, Weltwoche
Through an extended string of notable works as a reedist, composer, bandleader and sideman — and by sheer longevity- – John Surman had risen up the ranks of the UK jazz society and now he’s practically the dean of it. Arguably so for European jazz as a whole as well, and a stalwart of ECM Records’ lineup of legends since the mid 70s. But the seventy-nine year old saxophonist is not coasting to the sunset; he remains a very viable force still making music that pushes himself and the musicians with which he surrounds himself. ‘Words Unspoken’ is Surman’s latest case in point. For this project, Surman employed the ‘open composition’ approach, whereby he brought rough sketches and building blocks and left it to his band to work out together how these pieces of clay would be shaped into complete songs. For his ensemble, Surman chose Rob Luft (guitar), Rob Waring (vibraphone) and Thomas Strønen (drums, percussion), accomplished musicians from the UK, US and Norway, respectively. […] By painting impressionistic portraits out of cues and basic figures, John Surman got the best contributions from his quartet, as well as from himself. ‘Words Unspoken’ is a stunningly gorgeous record from an artist who long ago proved all he needed to prove.
Victor S. Aaron, Something Else Reviews
English multi-reedist John Surman makes a captivating return with this quartet album, ‘Words Unspoken’, featuring bandmates guitarist Rob Luft, vibraphonist Rob Waring, and Norwegian drummer Thomas Stronen. The title aptly reflects the group’s approach to music, and the words intuition and illumination come to mind whenever the pragmatic harmonic circularity of Surman’s modal pieces is on display as well as the outstanding improvisational prowess of all band members. There’s an ancient allure in this music that compels listeners to search as they navigate vivid sonic landscapes, both real and imaginary. […] The album’s perfect blend of sounds manifests Surman’s consummate musicality and artistic vision. ‘Words Unspoken’ is another winning album in a catalog full of them.
Filipe Freitas, Jazz Trail
It’s very much an ensemble set, full of interlocking lines, rolling-and-tumbling cyclic elements and subtle yet unpredictable melodic excursions, all of which bring a freshly minted quality to this lively and engaging album.
Roger Thomas, BBC Music Magazine (Five stars)
Surman turns 80 this August, but his restless imagination and urge to explore show little sign of diminishing. For his latest album he’s assembled a brand new band featuring US vibraphonist Rob Waring, who played on Surman’s latest release, 2018’s ’Invisible Threads’, plus two new younger collaborators, UK guitarist Rob Luft and Norwegian drummer Thomas Strønen. Much of the album basks in the spacious ambient jazz waft that ECM’s legendarily pristine production values have allowed him to hone. The title track is a mirage of shimmering vibes, lightly shushing brushes and Bill Frisell-ish guitar swells and backwards curlicues, over which Surman’s baritone sax unfolds a melancholy lyricism.   Elsewhere, however, Surman makes the most of his nimble new group to stir up other energies. […]  Most striking of all is opening track ’Pebble Dance’ in which guitar and vibes set up a simple chiming figure with a hint of American minimalism, allowing Surman to blow an astonishing solo on soprano, bending the notes like an Arabic ney, trembling with emotion, intensely full and rich, desperately tragic and hopeful. It might be the most human sound you’ll hear this year.
Daniel Spicer, The Wire
Was für ein schönes Album! Der britische Saxofonist John Surman hatte schon immer einen unvergleichlich kultivierten Ton, den er auf Sopran- und Baritonsaxophon sowie auf der Bassklarinette auch auf seinem neuen Album abzurufen weiß. Mit Gitarrist Rob Luft, Vibrafonist Rob Waring und Schlagzeuger Thomas Strønen schließt der79-Jährige an die großen Erfolge seiner ECM-Alben aus den1970er und 80erJahren an. Er ist ein romantisch expressiver Landschaftsmaler, dessen Klangfarbenauftrag stets an seinen Landsmann William Turner erinnert. Sein Farbauftrag ist kräftig und doch transparent, das Klanglicht seiner Kompositionen suggeriert kosmische Weite.  
Wolf Kampmann, Eclipsed
John Surman, un des improvisateurs européens les plus remarquables, un magicien des recontres musicales, un instrumentiste d’une exigence et d’une maîtrise  incomparables.  […] Poétiques, d’une fraîcheur constante, ses ‘paroles non dites’ (‘Words Unspoken’) sont pourtant d’une imposante expressivité.
Jean-Pierre Jackson, Classica
This new quartet sees him suspended in the crystalline ambience of Rob Waring’s vibes on the title track, gently pastoral and puckishly curious on ’Precipice’, and calling home with ‘Hawksmoor’’s playful architectural games. It’ a very ECM world of cool beauty, warmed by Surman’s melodies.
Nick Hasted, Uncut
Es sind wunderbar verspielte Themen, voller Poesie, die von den einzelnen Musikern vorgetragen, ausgeschmückt, variiert, untereinander ‘weitergereicht’ werden. So entsteht ein angeregtes Gespräch auf Augenhöhe, dem man als Hörer fasziniert folgt und das in seiner Emotionalität nachdenklich berührt. Es gibt herausfordernd intensive, wie unbeschwert heitere Momente auf diesem Album. Angeführt von John Surman, der hier in vocaler Manier auf Sopran Saxophon, Bariton Saxophon und Bass Klarinette brilliert, streift die Musik ethnische Kulturen und europäische Moderne. Insgesamt eine gute Stunde Musik, die das Leben in Balance bringt und die Bewusstseinsebene um ein Quantum Poesie bereichert.
Jörg Konrad, Kultkomplott
C’est souvent tender sinon déchirant. Toujours passionnant.
Jean-Claude Vantroyen, Le Soir
Mit jedem der zehn Titel versetzt Surmans Quartett in eine andere, nie eindeutig zu beschreibende Atmosphäre. Es gibt aufbauende Momente sowie Melodien, die an die Klarheit von Volksmusikthemen erinnern, aber auch lange Schwebezustände und gravitätisches Dahinschreiten. Oder in der Schlussnummer ‘Hawksmoor’ nach einem gelassenen Duett Surmans mit Strønen ein aus vielen Klangtupfern zusammengesetztes tonpointillistisches Klangereignis, das gegen Ende noch an Tempo gewinnt und fast fröhlich ausklingt.
Werner Stiefele, Rondo (Five stars)
Raffinierte rhythmische Strukturen, übereinander gelagert, entfachen einen ‘Kieseltanz’ (‘Pebble Dance’). Das phänomenale Solo John Surmans, der im August achtzig wird, zeugt von hoher Holzbläserkunst und mündet in ein dudelsackähnliches Thema. […] Rob Lufts Gitarre bereichert wieThomas Strønens Schlagzeug das rundum gelungene Album. […] Alles ist einfach ‘achingly beautiful’.
Karl Lippegaus, Fono Forum
“It has always fascinated me hearing from people the many different images and messages that any one piece of music can conjure up in their imaginations,“ says the British reedman John Surman in the liner note for his new quartet album. “Quite often the impressions and stories can be widely varied, and yet somehow seem to make sense to the individuals concerned. This is one side of the title Words Unspoken - but the other refers to the way that I wanted us to approach the music as a group. I simply brought some ideas along to the musicians and, without discussing who would play which element and how the tunes would take shape, we would try and piece the elements together just by listening to each other and reacting accordingly.”
Surman’s open compositions here are frameworks encouraging musical debate as the players guide the collective sound to new destinations, and add striking statements of their own. The ensemble’s identity builds upon the understanding achieved by Surman and US vibraphonist Rob Waring who, like the bandleader, has long been a resident of Oslo. Surman and Waring previously collaborated on John’s 2017 trio recording Invisible Threads with Brazilian pianist Nelson Ayres. They are joined here by two musicians familiar to ECM listeners, British guitarist Rob Luft (lately heard on albums with singer Elina Duni), and Norwegian drummer Thomas Strønen, whose projects have included the ensemble Time Is A Blind Guide, Food (with Iain Ballamy), the trio Bayou (with Ayumi Tanaka and Marthe Lea), Parish (with Bobo Stenson) and more. Strønen’s most recent ECM appearance was as a member of Sinikka Langeland’s band on 2023 release Wind And Sun.
The Words Unspoken quartet is a resourceful and often exciting band, as the opening “Pebble Dance” immediately makes plain. It flies from the starting block with a flurry of notes from the vibraphone that establish a climate for swirling and energetic soprano saxophone, and an atmosphere of intensity stoked by taut drums and shimmering guitar.
Through the changing moods of the album each of Surman’s instruments comes to the fore. On “Hawksmoor”, the music begins as a lithe dance for bass clarinet and Strønen’s brushed drums, joined at the halfway mark by guitar and vibes. On title track “Unspoken Words”, the beautiful baritone sax has a tenderness and eloquence that John alone seems able to wrest from the big horn, his soulful soliloquy developed against a wash of complementary sound-colour from Luft and Waring. So it goes.
Surman, who turns 80 in 2024, has been a vital force in European jazz and adjacent genres for more than half a century, already establishing himself as a unique soloist in the 1960s in groups led by Mike Westbrook and Chris McGregor. The band called just The Trio, with Surman and Americans Barre Phillips and Stu Martin, was one of the defining improvising groups of its era, and it was with this line-up that Surman first appeared on ECM, on Barre Phillips’s Mountainscapes in 1976. This was followed, in 1978, by Surman’s Upon Reflection.
Since then, he has appeared on ECM in the broadest range of contexts. These range from solo recordings (including the acclaimed Private City and Road To St Ives) to large ensembles - among them the John Surman/John Warren Brass Project, the Proverbs and Songs project with the Salisbury Festival Chorus, and Free and Equal with London Brass. And from duos (with Jack DeJohnette, Howard Moody) to transcultural projects (Anouar Brahem’s Thimar trio with Dave Holland, and John Potter’s early music-aligned Dowland Project). Surman has collaborated with the string quartet Trans4mation (on The Spaces In Between and Corruscating), and fronted his own groups on the albums Nordic Quartet (with Karin Krog, Terje Rypdal and Vigleik Storaas), Stranger Than Fiction (with John Taylor, Chris Laurence and John Marshall) and Brewster’s Rooster (with John Abercrombie, Drew Gress and Jack DeJohnette.) He has also been an important contributor to projects led by Paul Bley, Miroslav Vitous, Tomasz Stanko, Misha Alperin and Mick Goodrick. In all, a richly creative discography.
Unspoken Words was recorded at Oslo’s Rainbow Studio in December 2022, and is issued as the band embarks on its first European tour.
Further information:
Home - ECM Records
John Surman's Words Unspoken | Project — Arts & Parts (artsandparts.co.uk)
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