Yorkston/Thorne/Khan – Neuk Wight Delhi All-Stars
Domino Records – 2017
Scottish singer/songwriter James Yorkston, jazz double bass player Jon Thorne and sarangi maestro and classical singer Suhail Yusuf Khan came together a little over a year ago as an experimental trio. They recorded a studio album Everything Sacred which proved an unexpected hit, not least due to its inspired and original approach to collaborative music-making. There had been some previous history between the musicians, in that Thorne had been playing bass with Yorkston since 2009, whereas Khan’s initial (chance) encounter with Yorkston, backstage in 2011, resulted in a wildly successful ad-hoc onstage appearance. Everything Sacred thus turned out to be a much more assured adventure than its seemingly tentative assemblage might reasonably have prefigured, delivering a varied sequence of tracks that alternated between distinctly challenging and ranged from unexpectedly simple.
The success of Everything Sacred has evidently inspired the three musicians to further pursue the musical possibilities of their special collaboration, first in a period of steady touring and then in the recording of a follow-up album. The playfully literally titled Neuk Wight Delhi All-Stars refers to the men’s origins (Yorkston is from the East Neuk of Fife, Thorne from the Isle Of Wight and Khan from New Delhi). Although in a very literal sense the listener familiar with Everything Sacred maybe knows what to expect, the threesome prove they can still spring delightful and stimulating musical surprises with this latest set, described in all honesty and accuracy as “a collection of traditional Indian and UK folk songs, beautiful originals and idiosyncratic covers.” The principal difference between this new album and its predecessor is that the disc’s lengthiest track is placed virtually at the end of the sequence, as opposed to forming the album’s opening salvo.
The three musicians’ unique and unusual signature blend that was so persuasively established on Everything Sacred is both retained and developed here, making best capital out of key elements such as the wondrous, mournful, almost vocalised keening of Khan’s sarangi soaring above and around Yorkston’s impressively deft and lyrical guitar and Thorne’s intensely personalised jazz-tinged bass. It might be argued that the meandering, repetitive lines of the first item on the disc Chori, Chori make for a less immediately arresting opening statement than the earlier album’s epic Knochentanz; although Thorne’s insistent bass work, both fierce and supple, more than compensates. The second track makes a virtue of brevity in its segue of Samant Saarang and Just A Bloke, the latter’s quirky, chummily laconic diffidence reminding me a little of Ivor Cutler (whose Little Black Buzzer was so delightfully covered by Yorkston/Thorne/Khan on Everything Sacred). Yorkston takes on the vocal duty for Bales, a limpid miniature with much of the feel of a Nick Drake song. After this, Khan performs the traditional wedding song Jaldhar Kedara in tender, almost fragile a cappella mode. This is aptly succeeded by Yorkston, also a cappella, singing a fragment of the traditional ballad The Demon Lover to introduce False True Piya, a Hindi lyric composed by Khan himself that depicts a lover devastated by pain and longing for his beloved. This is an especially musically convincing track, whose urgent guitar strumming and entwining sarangi perfectly cradle Khan’s responsive vocal lines as the narrative builds momentum into an animated mini-raga.
Next, comes Thorne’s atmospheric, elliptical piano-backed song The Blue Of The Thistle, which says much in its short time-span. This is followed by the trio’s masterly account of the traditional Recruited Collier, where Yorkston proves surprisingly effective for all that it’s a “women’s song”, his jittery guitar picking and restless bass accompanying the mood of sung lament set into relief by Khan’s mirroring wordless vocal counterpoint. Next up comes the disc’s longest track thus far, The Blues You Sang, which makes its relaxed seven-minute span out of reworking a song originally outed on an earlier Yorkston album (2014’s The Cellardyke Recording And Wassailing Society). This paves the way for the disc’s magnum opus, Halleluwah, which from a jazzy bass-and-sarangi alap gradually develops, in a spirit of laid-back adventure, into a particularly satisfying raga-style instrumental workout through which Yorkston’s fluid, intelligent and interesting acoustic guitar interjections propel the intrinsic ebb and flow and where the concept of solo expression feels as natural as breathing. Tucked away after Halleluwah almost as an afterthought is the brief, chanson-like One More Day (Jon’s Song), characterised by Thorne’s charming, slightly colloquial vocal expression: all told, it’s an appealing if mildly short encore to the CD incarnation of Neuk Wight Delhi All-Stars.
At this point, it seems sensible to mention that the album is also available in a deluxe double vinyl edition which includes a tenderly felt and mesmerising vinyl-only cover of Ewan MacColl’s First Time Ever I Saw Your Face and a side-length 24-minute instrumental Drone.
It could be said that on first acquaintance Everything Sacred had something of the feel of a deliberately, almost wilfully eclectic conjoining, and as such might well have been considered just a one-off project (if admittedly one stage on from just testing the water as it were), but it really worked out, for its success was undoubtedly due to the deep-seated and gently natural bond between the three musicians and their total willingness to embrace each other’s artistic vision. Now, Yorkston/Thorne/Khan’s ‘Neuk Wight Delhi All-Stars’ defiantly establishes the distinctive trio as an evolving unit with much more to say and explore than just one album’s worth. They’re clearly not running short of ideas, and I can only wonder at the increasingly enterprising music-making a third album might bring.
Neuk Wight Delhi All-Stars is out now on Domino Records
Neuk Wight Delhi All-Stars Dates
THU 8 JUNE – Band on the Wall, Manchester
THU 13 JULY – SUN 16 JULY – Latitude Festival 2017, Southwold
FRI 21 JULY – SUN 23 JULY – Tramlines 2017, Sheffield
THU 17 AUGUST – SUN 20 AUGUST – Green Man Festival 2017, Brecon Beacons