Music inspired by ornithology has mutated into a micro-genre all of its own since Bert Jansch recorded Avocet with Martin Jenkins and Danny Thompson in 1978. Composer Jonathan Harvey’s modernist Bird Concerto utilised the quasi-electronic frequency modulation found in birdsong to create a form that was indebted to both the scientific and the poetic aspects of our relationship with birds. Peregrine, a conceptual piece by Lawrence English, is the composer’s reaction to the book of the same name by J.A. Baker. The distinctly British commingling of avian, musical and poetic worlds is nothing new – Vaughan Williams’ ‘The Lark Ascending’ (which in turn crept into King Crimson’s Larks’ Tongues In Aspic) dates from 1920 and is itself based on a poem from 1881.
But what Jansch did was create a new approach to his subject matter. The six tracks on Avocet – all instrumental – are not literal representations of individual species, a la Harvey. Nor is the album an outwardly literary experiment, a kind of musical monograph. This is music about music, not music about birds or about words. The track titles – each one a British bird – provide jumping-off points from which Jansch and his collaborators can explore a certain musical terrain, a landscape at the fringes, an acoustic hinterland where folk, jazz and blues meet and mingle.
Of course, Jansch’s status as an icon of folk guitar is secure, so it is fitting that the album’s title track refers to a bird that has attained similarly exalted position, at least among birders. Avocet is an eighteen minute suite, vast in scope as well as in length, that takes as its musical inspiration perhaps the most famous bird-based folk song of them all: The Cuckoo. Of course both Jansch and Thompson had given The Cuckoo a good go prior to this – it was a standout on Pentangle’s Basket Of Light LP – but this is a different beast entirely. The tune is segmented, the instrumentation minimal but intrepid, making it a much less arduous listen than its length might suggest. The constituent parts have space to make themselves heard and the whole thing has an exploratory, experimental feel that is not so apparent in much of Jansch’s earlier work. It is at once clear that this is a strongly collaborative effort. Jenkins’ plaintive, wild take on the Cuckoo refrain and Thompson’s lithe, descriptive bass are as much a part of the scenery as Jansch’s typically adroit playing, which borrows from jazz and blues but takes them both in utterly new and unexpected directions. Thompson even gets to indulge in a bass solo: this and the ever-changing time signatures lend a touch of jazz-prog to proceedings, but without any of the bombast that term might imply.
It’s not all about the interplay though. Lapwing is a miniature, tender piano piece played solely by Jansch, full of melancholy and unexpected prettiness. Baroque in its composition, deft in execution, it shows a side of Jansch rarely seen and gives an insight into just how impressive and wide-ranging his talent was. A subtle, sinewy electric guitar underpins Bittern, the most bluesy track on the album, counterpointing the spiky acoustic guitar and Thompson’s aggressive bass, until the two acoustic instruments elope for a charged call and response.
Perhaps Jenkins’ finest moment on the record comes on Kingfisher, where an intricate guitar and bulging bass augment his sighing, expressive fiddle. Osprey is another track that plays with time signatures. It is brisk, almost to the point of jauntiness, but tempered by the stately violin refrain. And on closing track Kittiwake the attention to detail and dexterity of Jansch’s playing is to the fore, perhaps aided by Thompson, whose production on the album is admirably clean.
Avocet has a reputation in some quarters for being one of Jansch’s most accomplished albums, but also one of his most difficult. This is somewhat unfair. Far from being hard to listen to, it has a flow from start to finish, a liquid quality well suited to the waterbirds of its song titles. It is an album to get lost in, but not necessarily one you want to find your way out of. There is a strong case for saying it contains Jansch’s finest work. With any luck this reissue – stunningly packaged in Hannah Alice’s original artwork – will find its way to a new and appreciative set of listeners.
Review by: Thomas Blake
Out Now via Earth Reocrdings
Available as an:
Art Edition – LP plus Lithograph Prints
Bookback Edition – CD
Order via Bandcamp here: www.earthvinyl.com