Friday, 7 October 2011


Bert Jansch's death touches me in two ways: first because I've loved his music for such a long time, and second because he's one of those people whose music you realise, in those sleepless brandy moments somewhere before dawn, would be suited perfectly for your own funeral.

If my memory serves me well, I discovered Jansch through one of those Warner-Reprise sampler albums they used to give away for postage, full of very clever, modest marketing, and loads of great music (Van Dyke Parks, the Kinks, Randy Newman, the Beau Brummels, the folk-rock Everleys) that seemed sort of sophisticated, which wasn't a word I applied to rock n roll at the time. The album was Birthday Blues, so it must've been 1969, and I was at university, and it blew me away. I wasn't averse to folk music, but that's not what Jansch was doing; he appealed to me at the time the same way Keith Jarrett did climbing inside the piano with the Charles Lloyd Quartet, or Ken McIntyre did playing jazz contrabass clarinet: his acoustic guitar was harsh, jangling, full of notes played just off the rhythm, or struck forcefully, as if to emphasise what was happening. And it was complemented by his voice, which did the same things— full of emotion that could draw dark or sad shadows behind each song. It might not sound it, but it was romantic too: and 30 years later I would give that very record to my not-yet-wife as a gift of love.

A lot is made of his jazz influences, and I was impressed with Ray Warleigh playing alto and flute, and of course Jansch led me to Pentangle at their peak, where the jazz influence was more obvious. He did any number of fine versions of Mingus' 'Good Bye Pork Pie Hat'. But to me Jansch himself was playing a sort of folk-blues. Bill Frisell has made some records that sound like what jazz would be if it developed out of country music; Jansch often sounded like what folk would be if it had grown out of the blues, and picked up a bit of jazz along the way. He was often compared to some of the great singer-guitar players like Leo Kottke, Ry Cooder or Bruce Cockburn, but he was darker than them, and if Big Bill Broonzy was an early influence, it was one I don't believe he ever left behind.

I saw Jansch a couple of times, once at a pub on Great Portland Street, where I showed up after work at ABC, and marvelled at the way such a huge talent was so at home playing before 30 or 40 people in a smoky room upstairs over an anonymous pub. In my jacket and tie I felt like I was distinctly out of place—but a few notes of his music made that feeling disappear.

His obituaries have made clear just how powerful an influence he was across a huge spectrum of musicians all over the world. Last year he opened on tour for Neil Young, playing huge concert halls, and apparently winning crowds over easily, if not with ease. You can see the affinity with Young, the same voice preferring to get the emotion rather than hit the notes perfectly, the same jangle in the guitar, the same willingness to revisit the same material and do it differently just for the sake of making it new. Always making it new. Bert Jansch was a rare musician of unique talent. He won't be replaced.

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