The Scottish singer-songwriter, Robin Williamson was, famously, one half of the Incredible String Band. Now, in the eighth decade of life, he’s in a late-career bloom of creative brilliance and idiosyncrasy to match Scott Walker’s: a light yang complement to Walker’s dark ying, perhaps. Their sounds couldn’t be more dissimilar.
It’s been eight years since Williamson’s last recording, Iron Stone, twelve since Skirting the River Road, which was his second for ECM, and the first on which he was partnered with violist/violinist Mat Maneri.
Maneri worked for many years in close partnership with his father, Joe Maneri. Having been instrumental in popularising the elder Maneri’s microtonal approach to jazz, he now stands in a similar relationship to Williamson. Maneri’s music had its ascetic particularity; likewise Williamson’s poetic balladry. And just as Mat Maneri’s original work draws from the diverse creative wells of improvisation, jazz and chamber music, and baroque and ethnic traditions, so Williamson’s muse has always been enthused by multicultural syncretism.
Since Maneri’s microtonal approach accords with aspects of Indian, Thai or Indonesian Gamelan music, it naturally emphasises the austere and contemplative aspects of music, and that well suits Williamson’s absorption in Celtic identity, and the inspiration he finds in the rugged beauty of Caledonia. On “Our Evening Walk” they mesh, Williamson playing viola counterpoint on Hardanger fiddle over a sruti-box drone, and the combined effect is mournfully evocative of distant pipe music.
If Williamson has, inevitably, lost some of the childlike glee of his younger self, as expressed in Incredible String Band music, he’s lost none of his wide-eyed wonder in everyday existence, and Trusting in the Rising Light is his most personal collection of songs to date, his music peculiarly, luminously self-sufficient. His inflection is inimitable, but his intonation precise.
Where Williamson’s last three albums drew for lyrics upon the work of Welsh poets (Henry Vaughan, Llywarch Hen and Taliesen on The Seed-At-Zero (ECM, 2000)), and the writings of American visionary Walt Whitman and London mystic William Blake (on Skirting the River Road), Trusting in the Rising Light comprises all-original material. And that’s no bad thing: Williamson’s own lyric poetry, with its clear-eyed focus on earthly spirituality, withstands any comparison to those literary forebears.
As with the lyrics, there’s a pared-back, self-reliant aspect to Williamson’s new music. An often eclectic multi-instrumentalist, on this album he restricts his own palette to Celtic harp, guitar, Hardanger Fiddle and whistles. Maneri plays only viola. They are complemented only by Ches Smith on vibraphones, drums, gongs and percussion instruments.
Smith is probably just as well, if not better known for his work with American alt-rockers Mr Bungle, Xiu Xiu and Carla Bozulich’s Evangelista as in the jazz idiom. Notably, he records for ECM with Tim Berne’s Snakeoil. On first impression, he seems an unlikely choice to complete Williamson’s trio. But his playing is perfectly deft and percipient. Witness the shimmer with which his minimal cymbal wash glosses the dying cadence of Williamson’s last words—”Trusting the way of the waves / Their rise and fall”—on the title composition. Entirely different, fresh-sounding on a Williamson recording, soak up Smith’s relaxed approach to rhythm as he makes easeful progress along “Roads”, or his freewheeling, more percussive entwining with William’s voice on the beat-poetic “Night Comes Quick in LA”.
Once you’ve acclimatised to Williamson’s rarefied sound-world you’ll appreciate a good deal of such variation in this music, which references its influences lightly. “These Hands”, for instance, has a playful, minor swing feel, Maneri’s viola playing on the gypsy-jazz of Stéphane Grappelli. “Your Kisses”, with Williamson on guitar, is is sprightly, capricious shuffle. More usually, the music hews closely to the feel and rhythm of spoken word or even interior monologue. This is exemplified by “Just West of Monmouth”, on which orientalist instrumental coloration decorates a clear-eyed and acute observation of the natural world:
“The August Fields / In clear and lowering light / Now wear / Three fineries of summer / Grasses dry tawny, straw-yellow / Trees in their full verdant green / And over all / The dove grey/ Deep and feathery softness / Of Welsh sky / Where floats…darkly… / Such a graceful bird / Slow circling slow / No… look / There are two, there are two / Their Stretched and learned wings / Almost unmoving / Listen / …”
The trio’s performance on this track also exemplifies the uniqueness of Williams’ songbook and chosen instrumentation. Smith plays a painterly array of gongs and cymbals to evoke the birds’ buoyancy and ballistic movement, while Williamson interpolates his prose-poetic recital with fluting whistles and Maneri adds perspective with short, frictional bowing. Their acuity is astonishing.
Robin Williamson vocals, celtic harp, guitar, hardanger fiddle, whistles; Mat Maneri viola; Ches Smith vibraphone, drums, gongs, percussion.
Tim Berne’s Snakeoil – Shadow Man
June Tabor, Huw Warren, Iain Ballamy – Quercus
Alasdair Roberts and Friends – A Wonder Working Stone
Christian Wallumrød Ensemble – Outstairs
ECM – Selected Signs III – VIII
Buy Trusting in the Rising Light direct from ECM.