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English Guitarist Rob Luft Releases Album with Saxophonist John Surman



Rob Luft is a 29-year-old guitarist from London who is quickly making a name for himself on the global jazz scene.  

Above Photo: John Surman, Thomas Stronen, Rob Luft, Rob Waring © Erik Fuglseth / ECM Records

Along with some highly acclaimed albums he has made as a leader, he has also recorded some much-admired albums with other musicians like ECM artist, Elina Duni.  We now add a magnificent new ECM album with British saxophonist, John Surman entitled Words Unspoken. I caught up with Rob in his busy travel schedule to ask about the new album with Surman.

JB: Words Unspoken is a wonderful new John Surman album on ECM Records with you featured as guitarist along with Rob Waring on vibes and drummer Thomas Stronen.  Tell us how John Surman and you got together and how long the two of you have been working together.

RL:  I first met John in 2018 in England, where he was the musical mentor at a retreat for young jazz musicians called “Take Five”. This is a long-running annual program run by the British music agency Serious, and past participants have included Kit Downes, Gwilym Simcock, Shabaka Hutchings, and many other great contemporary British jazz musicians. It was an amazing experience to spend a week with him in the English countryside playing new music, rehearsing and improvising together as a group, and of course, just listening to him play each day with that iconic baritone saxophone sound.

I crossed paths with him again four years later in the spring of 2022 in Norway where he resides with his partner, the incredible Norwegian jazz singer Karin Krog. I was part of the rhythm section (along with Thomas Stronen) for a concert celebrating Karin’s 85th birthday at the Nasjonal Jazz Scene in Oslo, and John joined us onstage for a few tunes at the end of the night. 

It was here that the spark began for the idea of recording an album together for ECM Records, as I really hit it off (on a musical level!) with Thomas Strønen that night. After a few beers at the club after the gig, Thomas bravely suggested to John that we should perhaps record something together. The rest, as they say, is history…!

JB:  My first exposure to John’s saxophone work was in 1969 with John McLaughlin’s Extrapolation album and later the Where Fortune Smiles album. Though a very different jazz texture, were there any elements of these albums that influenced you toward this project?

RL:  I love John McLaughlin’s music very dearly. The Mahavishnu Orchestra album “Birds of Fire” and the earlier quartet album “Extrapolation” (which of course features John Surman on saxophone) were huge inspirations for me whilst getting into jazz as a teenager. It means a huge amount to me on a purely personal level to be able to play with John simply because of this connection. 

His own solo work on ECM Records has also been a source of great musical inspiration to me over the years. I love the way he incorporates synthesizers and electronics into his music, creating wonderfully rich textures over which his saxophone is able to soar. 

All this time spent listening to John’s music whilst growing up greatly affects how I interpret playing his music. I feel quite well-aligned with his stylistic approach, which is often texturally quite minimal and floaty. In this particular format, I feel my musical role in the group is often to create a rich “carpet” of sound along with the vibraphone. That gives John plenty of space to weave his musical magic over the top of the harmony, in a way that only he can do! 

JB:  The same with Bill Frisell’s work with John in the 1980s and John Abercrombie’s work with him in the 1990s and 2009?

RL:  I love the two albums John made with Bill Frisell, Paul Motian & Paul Bley in the 1980s. For me, they provide a great framework for the “Words Unspoken” quartet as they are both bass less recordings, with John often taking the low-end role on either the bass clarinet or baritone saxophone. 

The way in which he is able to seamlessly jump from a melodic role to a more supportive bass role gives me a lot of freedom to improvise & solo over the band, much the same as one would do in a typical jazz setting. 

I have listened to a huge amount to John Abercrombie’s quartet album “November”, which features the great Mr. Surman on saxophone. I don’t know if this has directly influenced how I play in this particular band, but I can definitely say it has provided me a great amount of joy over the years.  I often come back & listen to that record as it’s so well-paced and full of great ensemble playing by everyone in the band. 

JB:  How long have you known and worked with Rob Waring and Thomas Stronen?

RL:  As I said earlier, I met Thomas Strønen for the first time in early 2022 for Karin Krog’s birthday concert, and I only met Rob Waring in the summer of that same year, when we started rehearsing as a quartet in preparation to record “Words Unspoken”. We connected instantaneously on a musical level and I must also say it’s very nice to play in a band with another “Rob”! I think it’s the first time I’ve played in a band where half the musicians are Robs… plus I always thought that Robs are generally quite good people, and Mr. Waring definitely confirms my suspicions! 

JB:  Talk about some of the comping joys and challenges of having just the drums as a rhythm section as well as its role as a textured instrument.

RL:  I would say that the vibraphone is also very much part of the rhythm section on this album! In fact, when John jumps down to the bass registers, he also joins the rhythm section along with Thomas and Rob. So, as I said earlier, this allows me to stick my head over the parapet when fulfilling a melodic role in the group.

In the more open, rubato sections, Thomas really comes into his own as a master of texture. He’s able to create fantastically unique soundscapes, with ride cymbals ringing out and deep bass drum interjections coming from his enormous Gran Cassa! I love to create ambient loops & drones that pulsate & interact with the drums in an arrhythmic, seemingly random way! This can give the music quite a hypnotic feel, which nicely suits the overall arc of the disc. 

JB:  Talk about your interaction with Rob Waring on vibes and the texture consideration the two of you must make in this setting.

RL:  It’s wonderful to play with Rob. We both firmly believe that guitar and vibraphone are a musical match made in heaven! The way the two instruments blend together is quite incredible, only comparable perhaps to the seamless blend of Hammond organ and electric guitar. 

We’ve never needed to talk directly about the blending of the two instruments in this quartet, and perhaps that’s due to the wealth of musical experience Rob has as both a classical tuned percussionist and as a jazz improviser. He knows exactly how to slot into any texture, whether that be playing a rhythmic ostinato, via a dreamier textural vibes part, or as a melodist… 

JB:  All the songs are composed by John.  Talk about, in a general way, how Rob, Thomas, and you realized John’s vision for these songs.

RL:  I believe that the title of the album – “Words Unspoken” – best answers this particular question! We have never really discussed in any detail whatsoever how we approach each piece, and when we perform live in concert, the songs come out wildly different every single time. That’s the beauty of John’s open-ended composing, it leaves so much space for each of our individual musical voices that we can bring something fresh to the table every time we play together. 

JB:  Much of what you do is melodically weaving around John’s saxophone lines.  Apart from listening, tell us what you are thinking about as you create this music.

RL:  I guess I’m mostly just trying to remain present and “in the moment”. Playing John’s gorgeous compositions feels almost like a kind of meditation to me. I try to keep my ears wide open to anything that’s going on around me onstage and to simply play this music with an open heart. 

Sometimes I might think of a place in nature that is dear to me, such as the Kentish countryside or the English coastline. I know that John’s music often evokes the sound of the folklore of the British Isles, so it feels somehow appropriate to play with these beautiful places at the back of my mind! 

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