Wednesday, October 12, 2011

R.I.P. Bert Jansch

A long-standing interest in the British acoustic music that hasn't consistently translated into shelf space in the music collection meant that I picked up copies of Colin Harper's Dazzling Stranger: Bert Jansch and the British Folk and Blues Revival and Rob Young's Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain's Visionary Music and devoured both in pretty quick time, figuring that they'd be pretty good starting points for a more detailed examinstion of that particular field.

At a stage where I'm investigating as much new music as I can find and filling in the gaps in a forty-year music collection those more detailed examinations aren't always going to be sitting at the top of the list of priorities and with the passing of Bert Jansch (3 November 1943 - 5 October 2011) that deferred investigation of an extensive discography is going to be posthumous.

When you're talking influences and strands running through genres it's difficult to think of many largely forgotten yet extremely influential artists than Bert Jansch. He'd been around for years, produced an extensive discography that's going to chew up an awful lot of credit card cash and shaped the playing of, among others, Jimmy Page and Neil Young, a rather interesting combination as far as Hughesy's concerned.

After all, when you think Led Zeppelin you tend to think in terms of thundering rifferamas, and while Neil Young can also thunder it out with the best of the turn it up to 11 crowd he's got an extensive array of fairly straightforward acoustic material, with Ambulance Blues being a pretty straightforward lift from Jansch's Needle of Death, which you can also hear echoes of in The Needle and the Damage Done. The influence was strong enough to have Young use Jansch as the opening act on his 2010 Twisted Road tour of North America. He was, according to Young, the acoustic equivalent of Jimi Hendrix.

Jancsh influenced plenty of others along the way, including Johnny Marr from the Smiths, the Incredible String Band's Robin Williamson (a former squatmate), Paul Simon, Pete Townshend, Donovan Nick Drake and, more recently, Devendra Banhart, Joanna Newsom, Espers, Babyshambles singer Pete Doherty, Beth Orton and Laura Marling.

A Scot of German extraction, Jansch was born in Glasgow, moved to Edinburgh as a child shortly before he fell under the spell of the guitar, Elvis Presley, Bill Haley and Lonnie Donegan after a primary school teacher in Edinburgh brought one into class. His parents couldn't afford a guitar, so he had a couple of goes at building his own before he came up with something that worked.

He worked as a nurseryman before becoming involved with the Howff folk club, where he took lessons from Scottish singer Archie Fisher and visiting American artists including Big Bill Broonzy and Brownie McGee, absorbed jazz and Arabic influences from London-based folk-baroque guitarist Davey Graham and more traditional input from singer Annie Briggs. He started writing his own material, influenced by Graham's eclecticism and moving away from the then-standard traditional and political repertoires.

There appears to have been a degree of natural flair involved, and according to legend it took only two lessons for Archie Fisher to teach him everything he knew. The second lesson was necessitated by the fact that much of the first was spent on the drink.

After a spell busking around Europe he moved to London, recording for the Transatlantic label and playing the folk club circuit playing an eclectic mixture of British folk and American blues in unusual tunings with plenty of improvisation, a fairly heady mix when you consider that, at this point, he didn't have a guitar of his own, content to use whatever instrument he could manage to scrounge temporarily at the gig and doesn't appear to have had a fixed address.

We're presumably not talking someone who spent hours in a garret honing his chops, and his first album was recorded in a kitchen on a reel-to-reel tape deck using a borrowed guitar..

His self-titled first album, which contained Needle of Death, appeared in 1965, followed later that year by It Don't Bother Me and collaborations with fellow guitarist John Renbourn (Jack Orion, Bert And John) the following year. 1967 saw the duo absorbed into ground-breaking folk supergroup Pentangle (with Jacqui McShee on vocals, bass player extraordinaire Danny Thompson and percussionist Terry Cox), an outfit that achieved commercial success between 1967 and 1972 with a string of successful albums, concerts characterised by extended solos and intensive improvisation and extensive radio and TV exposure.

Interspersed with the half-dozen albums recorded in the first incarnation of Pentangle (1968's The Pentangle and Sweet Child, 1969's Basket of Light, with Cruel Sister,  Reflection and Solomon's Seal following each year until 1972) Jansch recorded another three solo albums (Nicola,  Birthday Blues and Rosemary Lane) before the pressures of five world tours, recording and excessive alcohol consumption got too much for him in 1973, when he retreated to a farm in Wales.

There were occasional reunions through the eighties and nineties and into the twenty-first century, though from that point on Jansch remained essentially a solo artist who was, by all accounts, an introverted yet riveting performer, finger-picking in a style based around improvisation.

The albums, sixteen of them, followed at increasingly sporadic intervals through to 2006's The Black Swan, and along the way alcohol-related pancreatic illness prompted him to give up the drink ion 1987. International touring, Pentangle reunions,  and the reappearance of his back catalogue on CD ensured a continuing though largely under the radar presence, as did TV appearances and Colin Harper's biography, Dazzling Stranger.

Heart surgery in 2005 was followed by surgery for lung cancer in 2009, a circumstance that forced him out of some opening spots on that year's Neil Young tour, though he was able to rejoin Young on the 2010 leg of the tour, but the disease returned, leaving that situation where the examination of an extensive body of work is going to need to be done posthumously.

The examination, by the way, is about to start with an $11.99 download of his fifteen track eponymous debut from 1965 (padded out with a brace of bonus tracks).

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