Tag Archives: Folk

Review : Bert Jansch Conundrum “In Concert, 1980” DVD (Stefan Grossman’s Guitar Workshop, 2011)

Conundrum_BertAll apologies, I’ve fallen very behind on my reviews this year… though it’ s not due to a dearth of worthy releases!  Since it’s been a little while since I’ve gushed about the legendary Bert Jansch, I thought I would talk about his latest release, In Concert, 1980, out now on SGGW.  From what I understand, this show had already made the rounds on the VHS circuit (thanks Yair!) but this new issue, part of Stefan Grossman’s Guitar Artistry series, features bonus footage from a second concert, as well as a short documentary entitled A Man and His Songs.  The material and performances on offer here nicely bridge the gap between Jansch’s classic solo period of the mid ’60s and the sober, welcome renaissance  of recent years… and for that I consider it a document of utmost importance…  but In Concert is also a rare glimpse of Jansch at his collaborative best, playing both new compositions and compelling arrangements of old favorites, with players who not only have the chops to keep up with the unpredictable Scottish guitar hero, but also carry a genuine affection for the man and his art.

The Bert Jansch Conundrum was a loose sort of group that Jansch formed in the late 70’s, presumably to add a little muscle to his sound and recreate the vibe of some of his albums from that decade.  Auxiliary musicians in those years included Rod Clements, Mike Piggott, and the two men who join Jansch for this concert, mandocellist Martin Jenkins (who left his unmistakable stamp on 1979’s fascinating Avocet) and demure electric bassist Nigol Portman-Smith.  This trio is a relatively tight one, and most of the tunes follow a similar presentation : Bert singing lead and chording, while Jenkins keeps the melody flowing on violin or mandocello and sings backup. Portman-Smith’s understated yet bouncy bass does a great job of holding down the low end, and these men do keep quite a solid rhythm, despite the lack of any percussion. Continue reading

John Renbourn Tackles Satie’s “Sarabande”

Renbourn_70sJohn Renbourn is a wonder. His recording career began in England during the mid-sixties, just as the late Davey Graham was blazing new trails with the acoustic guitar.  John followed Davey’s lead, performing on his early Transatlantic albums with a sense of abandon, cleverly weaving together musical styles and traditions from around the globe. Over time, Renbourn’s playing became more measured but also increasingly detailed, sometimes blurring the line where folk music ends and classical music begins.  While his discography features a wide variety of modes and collaborations, his solo albums from the late seventies, The Hermit and The Black Balloon in particular, feature expansive long-form guitar instrumentals that are among his most ambitious and best works.  The latest album, Palermo Snow (Shanachie Records, 2010) belongs to that lineage… I was excited to discover it included an arrangement of Erik Satie’s “Sarabande,”¹ as I’ve been absorbed in Satie’s music recently and, more importantly, imagined that interpreting it would be an interesting change of pace for Renbourn.

Satie’s piano compositions are generally regarded as precursors to ambient music, which he referred to as musique d’ameublement, or “furniture music.” Their quality is atmospheric, repetitive, slightly dissonant.  Satie is identified with the avant-garde for his later associations with Dada, though his early compositions are often referred to as “impressionist.”  The series of three “Sarabandes,” introduced in 1887, just a year prior to his best known work, the “Gymnopédies,” indeed have a drifting, romantic quality.  Here is the late French pianist’s Jacques Février’s rendition of Satie’s “Sarabande No.1”²:

A “sarabande” is a dance in triple meter.  From what I’ve gathered, it was developed in Spanish colonies in the sixteenth century and later banned in Spain for its sexual undertones.  The dance was revived and commonly used as movement within a suite during the Baroque period, when the German music theorist, Johann Matthesson, declared that it “expresses no passion other than ambition.”³ It’s easy to imagine how the peculiar reputation and history of this dance would appeal to Satie, whose sense of humor is well documented.  One even wonders if the circularity of his “Sarabandes” was intended to be satirical. Interestingly, John Renbourn included an electric guitar rendition of a Bach “Sarabande” on his fourth album, The Lady and the Unicorn.  Despite the heavy vibrato effect, it sounds more formal than Satie’s “Sarabandes,” and I suspect provides a better sense of a typical, Baroque version of the dance:

Adapting ambient music to the guitar provides one with an opportunity to obsess over each individual note or chord; to allow the overtones that occur during sustain, as well as fret and room noise, to become the “detail” of the piece.  The timbre of steel string guitar seems particularly well-suited to the task, especially compared with classical guitar.  Solo fingerstyle guitar music, by contrast, is a show of dexterity, where bass and melody lines interact in a complex, sometimes dizzying manner. Renbourn is regarded as a master of fingerstyle form, and would seem to reside in a different ballpark from the ambient musician.  I know from my own attempts to feather ambient pieces into a fingerstyle repertoire that the adjustment in mindset is not easy to manage in one sitting.  Not to suggest that John Renbourn is uninterested in tonality, it seems reasonable to point out that the opportunities for him to really fuss over it have been somewhat scarce in his music.  I can’t think of many examples from his recorded works that resemble Satie’s music, save perhaps the duet rendition of the Charles Mingus’ “Theme from The Shoes Of The Fisherman’s Wife Are Some Jive Ass Slippers” with Stefan Grossman, which has impressionistic qualities.

Renbourn’s take on Satie’s “Sarabande” is similar in tempo to the Février example.  However, one gets the sensation, especially early on in the recording, that he feels slightly impatient and is struggling to lock in with the odd cadences of the piece:

In fact, it’s the sense of struggle that I find most appealing about this performance.  The voicings he selected for the arrangement also have a mundane quality that I think befits the piece.  If there’s one flaw, it would be the heavy handed use of artificial reverb on the recording, which I think obscures rather than flatters some of the details of John’s performance.  Nonetheless, I find it encouraging that this revered guitar player, who has accomplished so much with the instrument, was willing to venture into potentially uncomfortable musical territory to expand his boundaries, if even only slightly.  While this article focused only on one track, Palermo Snow is a certainly multi-faceted album worthy of celebration by guitar music fans.

¹ Renbourn’s arrangement is of Satie’s “Sarabande No. 1”
² from Piano Music of Erik Satie (Remastered, 2011)
³ from Der Vollkommene Capellmeister (1739)

Dual Review : Happy Traum “American Stranger” Enhanced CD/DVD and The Bert Jansch Conundrum “Thirteen Down” CD (Stefan Grossman’s Guitar Workshop, 2010)

Happy_AmericanSGGW143This month, Stefan Grossman’s Guitar Workshop reissues two albums from the Kicking Mule Records catalog: Happy Traum’s American Stranger (1977) and The Bert Jansch Conundrum’s Thirteen Down (1979).  Happy Traum and Bert Jansch are each singer-guitarists who launched careers during the sixties folk revival in the States and Britain, respectively.  American Stranger and Thirteen Down provide glimpses of their work in the late seventies, an era when many folk singers were trying their luck at the introspective and potentially lucrative singer-songwriter market.  Both men share a sophisticated approach to the guitar that, for each, distinguishes a repertoire of songs.  Presumably, this is why both ended up releasing at least one record with Kicking Mule (a label specialized in guitar music), and also why I’ve opted to write about the reissues together.

In a BBC radio broadcast spotlighting Happy Traum, Grossman remarked:

“The sign of a truly great guitar player is not how complex he can play but, rather, that the sounds he produces are music… the forte of Happy Traum is that he can take a blues and arrange it in a rather simple fashion to produce a very lyrical and moving and very musical performance.”

The tunes on American Stranger bear out Grossman’s sentiments… clear and deliberate folk and blues guitar playing highlights the collection, and elevates Happy’s unaffected if somewhat plain-sounding vocal delivery.  A variety of contributors, including John Sebastian on harmonica, lend accompaniments throughout, subtly building on Traum’s performances. Continue reading

Review : John Renbourn & Stefan Grossman “In Concert” 2xCD/DVD (Stefan Grossman’s Guitar Workshop, 2010)

by Raymond Morin

Many acoustic guitarists probably have some degree of acquaintance with the work of John Renbourn and Stefan Grossman, but for the unfamiliar, allow me to offer up a short history : After cutting his teeth in clubs during the British folk and blues revival of the early 60’s, Renbourn recorded a series of classic solo albums on the Transatlantic label, and also began a fortuitous allience with Bert Jansch, resulting in their classic Bert and John duet album, and the influential folk-jazz group Pentangle. When that group initially dissolved (it would reform in assorted incarnations over the years, centering around singer Jacqui McShee… Renbourn would be an occasional participant), the guitarist delved ever-deeper into folk and blues forms, as well as jazz and ancient Medieval music. On LPs like The Hermit and The Black Balloon, Renbourn developed a sophisticated compositional style that, while complex, also overflowed with beauty and nuance.

Stefan Grossman started as a determined young blues devotee from New York City, studying under the tutelage of Reverend Gary Davis. Grossman himself quickly became something of a guitar guru… having a keen ear, and having learned first-hand from many of the original blues masters, Grossman began authoring instructional books aimed at disseminating classic American acoustic guitar styles, from country blues to ragtime. After a short stint at architecture school, he headed over to Europe, where he lived and worked for twenty years, starting the legendary Kicking Mule record label (alongside Takoma Records cofounder Ed Denson) which was instrumental in launching the careers of world-class guitarists like Duck Baker, Peter Finger, Dave Evans and Ton Van Bergeijk. Continue reading

Review : Toby Walker “Speechless… for once” CD (Little Toby Records, 2010)

By Raymond Morin

Somehow, I had never heard of “Little” Toby Walker before his new CD arrived in my mailbox.  When I opened the envelope, though, I was delighted to find out that Walker had been led to me by a mutual friend, Mr. Denis Turbide, and I decided to give the disc my utmost attention.  I could surmise from the packaging that the man has good taste in guitars: there are a couple of handsome Huss & Dalton models featured, one on the cover and one on the inside panel, and Walker indeed plays an H&D OM, along with a couple of National guitars, on these recordings.  It was also readily apparent from the album title (and the bound-and-gagged cover portrait) that Walker has a sense of humor about himself, which immediately endeared me to him…  a lot of us young guitar-slingers definitely take ourselves way too seriously!  All of this, combined with a few familiar rags and fingerstyle-guitar showpieces peppered into the tracklist,  led me to assume that Mr. Walker probably knows his way around 6 strings…  and though that assumption proved correct, my opinions regarding this disc are mixed. Continue reading

Review : Jack Rose “Luck In The Valley” LP/CD (Thrill Jockey, 2010)

by David Leicht

Performing is a musician’s most reliable path to the mastery of technique and ideas. The late Jack Rose constructed his solo guitar repertoire through years of persistent touring to become one of the commanding players of our generation. His 2005 album, Kensington Blues, presented eight selections that would serve as prototypes for his subsequent work, and a guitar vocabulary that was both deep-rooted and deliberately limited. Jack did not dabble, at least in public (he once told me that he played “Blackwaterside” now and then for a kick or as a warm-up). Instead, he continually explored variations of his core ideas. On his ultimate album, Luck In The Valley, he works primarily in ensemble with a cast that includes Glenn Jones, The Black Twig Pickers, Harmonica Dan and Hans Chew.

Jack’s work on the Weissenborn is the part of his repertoire I enjoy most. He used lap slide conventionally, for blues solos, but would also turn to it for modal, rāga-like excursions like “Now That I’m A Man Full Grown II” (from Kensington Blues) and “Song For The Owl” (from the limited edition 2009 LP, The Black Dirt Sessions). Luck In The Valley opens with a selection in this mold, entitled “Blues For Percy Danforth.” Jack’s slide on the take is charged and immediate, while an accompaniment of jaw harp and harmonica cleverly approximates sitar overtones. Within the context of the current guitar underground, where there is no shortage of Hindustani exotica, this cut strikes me as a revelation:

As “Danforth” fades, the album turns on a dime into “Lick Mountain Ramble,” the first of several rowdy ensemble pieces described in the press notes as “three-track shack recordings.” These tunes are elemental, joyful and beautifully presented. Jack’s “boom-chick” is the pervasive force, but is never artificially favored in the mixes, which are appropriately roomy and not over-engineered. My favorite is “When Tailgate Drops, The Bullshit Stops” (of course, though, I’m a sucker for the title)

“Tree In The Valley,” from the latter half of the album, is the second rāga-style work and one of only two solos, played in the manner of Robbie Bãsho’s “A North American Raga (The Plumstar)” (from 1971’s Song Of The Stallion LP) and Jack’s own “Cross the North Fork” (originally from Kensington Blues, with alternate takes on Tompkins Square’s Imaginational Anthem Volume 2 compilation of 2006 and also The Black Dirt Sessions). What I think Rose brings to this type of guitar playing that most others have not is an unwavering sense of resolve: there is never a moment’s hesitation, never a loss of direction. He also brings near-flawless execution, and so absent are the missed and bum notes that could jar the listener from reverie.

While Kensington Blues will likely endure as Jack’s signature work, Luck In The Valley, his best since, is a worthy, multifaceted companion.

Buy the LP or CD from Thrill Jockey
Buy the LP or CD from Insound
Dr. Ragtime, a Jack Rose tribute site
Jack Rose on Myspace

Fantastic Voyagers Festival 3… March 6 + 7 In Pittsburgh

Though a couple of acts are still being confirmed, Pittsburgh’s Mike Tamburo has announced the lineup for the third installment of his Fantastic Voyagers Festival, to be held this year at Morning Glory Coffeehouse on March 6 and 7. The musicians represent several styles, genres and techniques, and this years fest will see its participants exploring the quieter side of their repertoires.

The confirmed list (not necessarily in order of appearance) :

Keenan Lawler (Louisville)
Nick Schillace (Detroit)
Eric Carbonara (Philly)
Enumclaw (Philly)
Chris Forsyth (Philly)
Aaron Lennox (West Virginia)
Joel Peterson (Detroit)
Mike Tamburo and pals (Pittsburgh)
Sundog Peacehouse (Pittsburgh)
Tusk Lord (Pittsburgh)
Hunted Creatures (Pittsburgh)
Pairdown (Pittsburgh)
Waterfinder (Pittsburgh)
Melissa St. Pierre (Pittsburgh)
Dire Wolves (Pittsburgh)
Chris Niels (Pittsburgh)
Great Blue Heron (Pittsburgh)
Darren Myers (Pittsburgh)