Bert Jansch - Avocet

by Jeff Penczak Rating:9 Release Date:2016-02-06

Legendary folkie Jansch did just about everything throughout his lengthy 50-year career, but 1979’s Avocet may be one of his must puzzling efforts: a concept album about birds recorded in Denmark. And did I mention it’s all instrumentals? And the title track is 18 minutes long and takes up all of Side 1?

Obviously best appreciated by Jansch’s legion of fans who primarily focused on his intricately arranged and often rather difficult finger-picking and tunings (a major influence on Nick Drake, among others), Jansch was fond of telling anyone who asked, “I’m, not playing for anyone, just myself”. But Avocet is far from the self-indulgent mess such a pronouncement might suggest. This is an intimate, moody collection, satisfying those hold up in the bedsit looking for a rainy day dreamaway, or sitting on the beach and horizon-gazing. Pentangle partner Danny Thompson adds wonderful, walking bass lines (including a beautiful solo on the title track), while Martin Jenkins’ violin and flute solos dance from vibrant gypsy swirls to serpentining back roads around Jansch’s adventurous-yet-playful arrangements and improvs. Yes, that title track may be the best introduction to Jansch’s career for any newcomer wondering what all the fuss and newsprint was all about. It’s all here: melodic folk passages, a snippet of gypsy dance tunes, soft, shuffling jazz lines, and earcatching improvization. A touch of Donovan, Drake, his buddy John Renbourn, and a blueprint for many (if not most) British folk guitarists to follow.

     Side 2 could be a let down, but Jansch doesn’t just toss off a few licks of filler to fulfill his contract. For starters, he puts down the guitar for the short little piano trifle, ‘Lapwing’ that unfortunately doesn’t have enough time to develop into anything other than a nice exercise in finger stretching, but the 8-minute ‘Bittern’ regains his footing via an elaborate double-tracked electric/acoustic duet, and you’d swear that was Renbourn sitting next to him! Simply awe-inspiring playing and proof positive, as if anyone needed it, that Jansch was one of the best and most respected guitarists Britain (or anywhere else for that matter) ever produced. Oh, and there’s another stand-up-and-be-noticed solo from Thompson that’ll shut down even the noisiest conversation and have everyone heading over to the turntable to see what the heck that sound is!

     And speaking of Donovan, Jansch’s ‘Kingfisher’ does seem to take off from the melody from Don’s own tribute to the spike-haired warbler, although Jenkins’ violin virtuosity almost steals the show. ‘Osprey’ also focuses on Jenkins’ wild-eyed Gypsy violin trills, almost to the point of elbowing Bert off his own album, but the sunny day stroll-in-the-meadow that closes the album, ‘Kittiwake’ returns control to Jansch for a sentimental goodbye to our feathered friends. A perfect end to one of Jansch’s finest mid-period albums (it’s his twelfth), and the perfect soundtrack for the next time nature calls!

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