Graded on a Curve:
Bert Jansch,
Avocet

By its very nature instrumental music is a study in form, and frequently to such an extent that listeners nurturing vocally focused comfort zones can feel left out in the cold. Bert Jansch’s non-vocal debut Avocet is well-poised to overcome this obstacle; a trio effort of welcoming beauty devoted to the glory of British birds, the whole stands amongst the lauded Scottish guitarist’s most fully realized achievements. 

The making of Bert Jansch’s twelfth LP transpired in February of 1978, a point on the calendar roughly coinciding with the nasty storm of punk rock, and wherever the eye of the squall traveled across the landscape of the UK, it can be safely surmised Avocet was elsewhere. Over time the guitarist would come to be revered by a heaping dog-pile of alternative-indie figures with creative DNA directly traceable to the punk upheaval, but it’s well-established that the late ‘70s proved to be a tough stretch for practitioners of non-clamorous sounds not limited to veterans of the Brit-folk scene.

Of course it’s not all so simple. As related in Colin Harper’s excellent notes for Avocet’s reissue, Jansch’s prior set A Rare Conundrum, released in the UK in ’77 on Charisma, had been well-received by the Brit music press in part because it was viewed as a sort of homecoming affair after two full-lengths cut out California way (those would be ‘74’s L.A. Turnaround and ‘75’s Santa Barbara Honeymoon).

Avocet also soaked up positive coverage in the weeklies, but didn’t appear in the UK until 1979; its initial ’78 pressing came via the Ex-Libris label of Denmark, the enterprise of Jansch’s Danish manager Peter Abrahamsen having additionally brought out A Rare Conundrum (as Poormouth) a year ahead of its emergence in British record shops.

Enduring as one of the artistic triumphs in Jansch’s bountiful discography, Avocet combines uncommon clarity of vision with rich group interplay clearly descended from the guitarist’s work in the progressive folk act Pentangle. As evidence, his Pentangle bandmate Danny Thompson is here on upright bass as Martin Jenkins contributes mandocello, violin, and flute.

Jenkins was formerly in Dando Shaft, a unit fairly described as being similar to Pentangle’s prog-folk temperament. He fits into this scenario without the slightest snag and indeed was awarded co-billing on the Ex-Libris edition; altogether the trio offers an exceptional level of communicative power and ceaselessly avoids slipping into meandering, unfocused territory. Given that Avocet’s title track reaches 18 minutes and spans the entirety of side one, this is no minor accomplishment.

Commencing in gentle fingerpicking mode, “Avocet” is immediately strengthened by Thompson’s muscularity as Jenkins’ glistening violin enters last; based on the traditional “The Cuckoo,” the opening minutes do emanate a warm, well-ripened melodic sensibility, though three minutes into the piece they redirect into a more contemporary setting, Jansch and Jenkins engaging in a superb dialogue as Thompson’s fibrous notes anchor the proceedings.

As “Avocet” unwinds understated structural shifts continue to help keep things lively, and in the second half Jenkins’ flute lends depth to the palette. Jansch’s brilliance is in constant flower however, and as the cut extends the trio coheres into robust momentum before returning to the calmness of the start for a satisfying finale.

“Lapwing” is a pretty and comparatively concise 90 seconds of Jansch alone on piano, opening side two with an appealing change of pace. “Bittern” spreads back out as the gorgeous weave of guitar, bass, and mandocello underscores the artistry of all three participants, especially Jenkins’ unusual axe in a role of distinct resonance. A little beyond mid-way through and Thompson is in the solo spotlight, the heft of his lithe, legitimately jazzy playing increased by his prominence in the mix.

Along the way Thompson adds flourishes ultimately differentiating him from standard jazz practices, and the way he drops into “Kingfisher” momentarily brings the coffeehouse circuit to mind as the threesome seamlessly blend into an exploratory yet highly melodic whole. Jansch picks the crisp foundation, halfway betwixt modest and subtly erudite, as the bassist’s weighty reverberations and infrequent woozy surges establish the rhythm. Jenkins’ fiddle takes the lead.

On one hand, Charisma’s decision to sheer off Jenkins’ co-credit is a bummer; while the multi-instrumentalist is self-deprecating in regard to his violin playing on Avocet (a view some observers seem eager to agree with), to these ears his bowing is perfectly fine and at moments downright splendid. But on the other side of the argument, with the exception of Jenkins’ “Osprey” all the music was written by Jansch and the notes further divulge the fiddle melodies as based upon suggestions from the guitarist.

Interestingly, Jansch is more assertive during “Osprey,” Thompson’s sinewy lines accommodating the piece with bedrock as Jenkins’ fiddling swings from achy to fleet to pretty and various points in between. No doubt those who prefer a lighter touch with the catgut have a fair reason to quibble, but as a considerable amount of folky material from the ’60s-’70s gets victimized by ambiances of polite insubstantiality, the sharpness of Jenkins’ tone is appreciated.

Taken completely on its own, closer “Kittiwake” could be mistaken as leaning toward the mild-mannered, but the general amiability of the guitar and mandocello is offset by Thompson’s indefatigable tugging; nearing conclusion the players mingle into a vibrant tapestry. It ends an exquisite, unique album.

As related by Turner’s text Avocet preceded a lengthy drought of appropriate press reportage, though Jansch remained busy throughout the difficult ’80s. Before his death in 2011 he experienced a deserved comeback and today he’s rightfully assessed as a giant of the guitar; the place to begin is still ’65’s self-titled debut, but Avocet easily belongs on the list of truly essential Bert Jansch recordings.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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