The Music of Harry Taussig and Max Ochs
Tompkins Square – 26 May 2017
In 1967 John Fahey‘s Takoma label released Contemporary Guitar – Spring ’67, a sampler LP intended largely to show off the talents of players who would then be considered a working on the edge of the acoustic guitar universe. Not surprisingly, the playlist included a long sampler medley from Fahey and an another long track from Robbie Basho, these two accounting for around half the album. The rest of the playlist comprised one track from re-discovered bluesman Bukka White and, more importantly for this review, two tracks apiece from Harry Taussig and Max Ochs.
To mark the 50th anniversary of Contemporary Guitar – Spring ’67 the Tompkins Square label has issued The Music of Harry Taussig and Max Ochs. To their credit, this is not a re-titled reissue of the Takoma album but new recordings of Taussig made in December 2016 and of Ochs in January 2017. Both players are now in their 70s, neither seems to have lost much. Released on vinyl, the album simply divides into side A: Taussig; side B: Ochs.
Harry Taussig’s contribution is four on guitar and one banjo piece. Throughout all the guitar pieces there is a strong Fahey influence. Strong trebles and a steady bass together with a rolling right hand which anchors each piece, allowing the melody to come from variations in picking pattern and occasional, the unexpectedly odd interval. This is perhaps best illustrated in the piece When Yellow Leaves Do Hang which forms track 3. The following track Into The Veil of Years show the same Fahey influence but there is something else which seems to come more from Taussig. Built on a foundation of strict waltz time, a melodic line starts on the middle strings, is repeated rising up across the strings and up the fingerboard and returns from whence it came to close the piece.
Some of these same ideas are carried into Remembrance of Things Future, the banjo piece which closes Haussig’s section of the album. Suffice it say, I’m not good with banjos, probably spent too long playing nothing but the guitar.
Max Ochs, incidentally a cousin of the late singer/songwriter Phil Ochs, opened both sides of the 1967 Takoma album with a track entitled Raga and I don’t think it would be unfair to consider him the more adventurous player of the two. Not better, just different.
Boogie For Barry Master, the first of his three tracks is, to me, the most interesting track on the album. Reading the sleeve notes, and a bit more besides, it becomes obvious that Ochs is steeped in the blues. Through his friendship with Fahey he came into contact, and was taught by, Mississippi John Hurt. There are, apparently, several lost blues tracks from the session for Contemporary Guitar – Spring ’67. What makes Boogie For Barry Master so interesting is that, while much of the track show Fahey’s influence, other aspects suggest aspects of the Davy Graham/Bert Jansch school, as if Ochs might have been trying to fuse the two.
This is followed by Oncones where again you get the feeling that Ochs is trying to fuse different elements into a cohesive whole. In this case, it is the American Primitive approach to the acoustic guitar and good old solid blues playing, the latter perhaps dominant.
The album closes with See What Tomorrow Brings, a ten-minute slide guitar track with perhaps shades of throwing in the kitchen sink about it. It opens with something vaguely reminiscent of ‘Ain’t Nobody’s Fault But Mine’, moves on through a suggestion of Hindustani slide to something almost, but not quite, atonal and closes on what could almost be a disorderedly Fahey walk-down played with a slide. Great fun.
A bit of YouTube-ing finds a video of Taussig on stage at SXSW, sitting back in his chair totally relaxed whilst improvising on a twelve string. Ochs is best viewed in a tribute to Son House. When not singing he sits over an old Gibson, which looks to me to be similar to or the same as that in the Robert Johnson photograph (I am not a guitar anorak), intent upon his left hand. His playing, led by a right thumb which generally controls the bottom four strings, is as driven as Taussig’s is relaxed, as evidenced by his right hand. There is an old saw in guitar playing along the lines of ‘the left-hand tells what you play; the right hand who you are’.
I thank Tompkins Square for introducing me to these two quite different, and historically important, players.
Harry Taussig and Max Ochs Live Dates
May 26 – (Release Day !) Zebulon, 2478 Fletcher Drive, Los Angeles
May 28 – 2 pm “in store”, Down Home Music Store, 10341 San Pablo Ave, El Cerrito, CA 510-525-2191
May 28 – The Back Room (w/ Richard Osborn), 1984 Bonita Ave, Berkeley, CA 510-654-3808