As a young man Richard Osborn played classical piano, then came the folk music revival of the early 1960s. He switched to guitar, saw John Fahey in 1965 and spent the next few years copying him until around 1968 he encountered Robbie Basho. Since Osborn had already developed an interest in Indian music somewhere around 1964 it was, perhaps, a natural progression to move from Fahey copyist to studying with Basho. He was certainly a good student as Robbie Basho attested “He’s a student of mine and he’s better technically than me or Fahey.”
Fast forward to 1980 and disaster. In two separate accidents, Osborn severed a nerve at the base of his left thumb and later a tendon in his left index finger. These resulted in his being unable to play for the next fifteen years, and even today he has not regained all the strength in his left hand. Returning to the instrument around 1995 he concentrated on playing a classical guitar with its inherent lower string tension than a steel string. Eventually, he returned both to the steel string acoustic and the raga influenced work he had begun with Basho. In 2012 he self-released an improvisational album Giving Voice: Guitar Explorations and this was followed by his inclusion on the 2015 Tompkins Square compilation Beyond Berkeley Guitar. The same year saw the release of another self-release Freehand to be followed in 2017 by Tompkins Square issuing of Endless.
The album opens with In a Monastery Garden, not an arrangement of the piece of light classical music by Albert Ketèlbey but an Osborn original. The piece sets out the general style for the first four tracks which constitute side A of the LP edition. The playing harks back to Osborn’s classical years with bassline and arpeggios on the top supporting a melodic line largely built on the middle strings.
Streets of Laredo, A Pastorale which follows is really a set of variations on the old tune delivered again in what feels essentially a classical style. In fact, Osborn’s sleeve note says ‘A Beethoven-like approach to one of the sweetest tunes in American folk music’. Sadly, being generally fairly ignorant of much orchestral music I am not qualified to pronounce on the success of this intention.
The classical folk song arrangement feel is continued in Still I Will Be Merry, an English tune dating possibly, as the sleeve notes suggest, from the time of the Black Death. The playing, on a Tony Yamamoto Multiscale (fan-fret) 12 string, is beautifully precise and the track is my favourite of the ‘classical’ half of the album. The accompanying notes suggest not only the tune’s origin but also, perhaps, something of the player’s philosophical make-up ‘whether meant ironically or not, staying merry in the absence of meat, drink and money is still a worthy goal’. As a poor, but not tee-total, vegetarian with a smidgeon of Zen in him, I can sympathise with that.
The last of the four, Breton Fisherman’s Prayer, seems to me to turn away from the folk influence of the two preceding tracks, having more the feel of In a Monastery Garden. It is the only track to contain a vocal which, I must confess, I would rather was not there.
If it seems that way, it was never my intention to deal lightly with the first half of this album, but after listening a couple of times it becomes clear that it really comes alive in the second half, side B on the LP. This opens with The King Walks By on which, after only a couple of bars or so, the guitar is accompanied by tabla played by Barry Philips who also contributes to the final two tracks. The tune here is interesting in that it bears some similarities to that of Breton Fisherman’s Prayer even though we are entering Osborn’s world of free raga. Right from the start of this piece his playing seems to have more definition, he sounds like a man at one with what he is doing and this feeling grows throughout the remainder of the album. Osborn’s playing, from In a Monastery Garden on, is characterised by a great sense of being unhurried but in the raga driven pieces this somehow becomes heightened and the music takes on a serenity perhaps missing from the early tracks.
I know little of raga beyond the fact that there are morning and evening raga and that they differ and that the music tends to make use of odd time signatures. From a position of ignorance, save of the guitar, I can only say that the last two tracks Your Eyes and The Open Road are delightful. The playing has a timeless quality as if the work has been around forever. There is an ease and a precision far beyond the level demonstrated in the earlier tracks, all four of which do demonstrate considerable technical ability and musicality. Given that, in tracks 1-4 I felt that bass, mids and trebles kind of existed separately within the arrangements, whereas in the free raga tracks the three elements were seamless. Consequently, the music flowed like an unhurried river. The extended closer The Open Road creates such a wonderful sense of space, timelessness and yet also a sense of continual forward movement that I felt I could have followed it for much, much more than its eleven-minute duration. This track, which perhaps might well as easily have been called The Open Mind is where the heart of Endless and Osborn’s work resides.
I’ll leave the last word to Richard Osborn describing how he felt when he realised that he might have the strength to return to steel string guitar and started playing raga again ‘It was like somebody gave me a train ticket and I got to go home again.’
For those interested in the much appreciated background material used in this review and who wish to know more, see:-
“Beyond Berkeley Guitar” Interview : Rich Osborn, Work and Worry June 10, 2010
‘American Primitive Guitarist Richard Osborn Marks Long-Awaited Return’ May 2016 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine. By Kenny Berkowitz
Both and more are available on the web
Endless is released on 27 January via Tompkins Square