Trusting In The Rising Light
Robin Williamson vocals, Celtic harp, guitar, hardanger fiddle, whistles
Mat Maneri viola
Ches Smith vibraphone, drums, gongs, percussion
Recorded January 2014, Rockfield Studios, Monmouth
Engineer: Steve Lowe
Assistant engineer: Tim Lewis
Mastering: Christoph Stickel and Steve Lake
Produced by Steve Lake
Robin Williamson, perhaps the last true bard on earth, returns with Trusting In The Rising Light. Following a string of intimate programs setting the words of famous poets to music (among them Dylan Thomas, Walt Whitman, and William Blake), he now dips a quill into his own inkwell and scrawls a masterful new ream of originals. Ten years separate this recording from its predecessor on ECM, The Iron Stone, but the wait has been well worth it, not least of all for the contributions of his fellow session musicians. From that last album he retains violist Mat Maneri and to this nexus adds drummer-percussionist Ches Smith. The result is an attuned, free jazz-folk session that feels at once long overdue and just right for its time.
I caught up via e-mail with the album’s producer, Steve Lake, who described how the project came together:
“I’d been in touch with Robin over the years, and hadn’t realized that so much time had elapsed since The Iron Stone—the clichés about time moving faster as we age are true. In autumn 2013 he said he was in a period of writing lots of songs and read me the lyrics to ‘Trusting In The Rising Light’ and ‘Swan’ over the phone. It seemed like the moment for a new album. Robin said he wanted to work with Mat Maneri again, which of course was fine with me. I talked with [ECM head] Manfred Eicher about a possible vibraphone player for the session and Ches Smith’s name came up. It struck me as a good idea since I knew that Ches had formed a new trio with Mat and Craig Taborn. So inside the Williamson line-up there were two proven associations, Robin/Mat and Ches/Mat. With this as a basis we could confidently get to work.”
Where some voices crack and smolder with age, Williamson’s is like a fine sword: it only gets stronger the more it’s folded in its malleable state. And while he has always engaged larger questions of conviction, politics, love, and sense of place, on Trusting he seems far more content to dwell on the little things: spending time with a loved one, the fundamental pleasures of observation, and, as the album’s title implies, faith in life’s givens and regularities. As a romantic, he is lyrical yet realistic. He seems well aware that the limits of his control extend not much farther beyond his own body and the words and music it produces.
Nowhere is this clearer than in the title song, which turns on a movie with no opening credits. Here is one who stands at harbor, watching the rise and fall of the waves and knowing that some things are better left to their own rhythm:
In every man-hewn stone
The anchored voices murmur
What they have always to say
As to what of our life
When whence and whither
We born of woman
Born of the Great Mystery
Being a relatively new yet enthusiastic fan, I asked Lake to place the album in the larger context of Williamson’s decades-long career. “It’s a high point,” he answered, “but if I look at Robin’s discography there are a lot of high points, including albums on his own Pig’s Whisker label which too few people have heard (if you can find them I recommend Ring Dance, At The Pure Fountain, and Dream Journals). Robin’s been a working musician for almost sixty years but has never been exactly career-minded. His musical and literary interests carry him forward and as a result he has had, I would guess, a richer and more interesting life than many who have made the career a priority. Trusting in the way of the waves, as he says in the title track…”
Accompanying these sentiments—in truth, embodying them—is Williamson’s trusty harp. Despite being prone to putting on magical airs, at his fingertips it is not an instrument of spells and incantations. Over the years it has become burnished like a well-worn table at which countless meals have taken place. And there, among the dishes and scratched spoons are those same rhythms of life, having left their hieroglyphics behind for deciphering. As he blossoms in a wave of strings, crashing on the shores of a dawn not so far away, he provides confirmation that in the good work one can be grateful for the opportunity to engage with land and sea, to know that it will all be waiting on the other side of slumber.
Whether through the droning raga of “Our Evening Walk,” in which love begets love, or the heartfelt wonder of “Alive Today,” in which Williamson takes comfort in something as insignificant as the flap of a bird’s wings, such assurances thread every song that follows with the knowledge that all those things we rely on will be there for us, in light or darkness. Sometimes, as in “Falling Snow,” his romance is with the universe at large, pulling together time and space like a massive proof of emotional and spiritual relativity. At others, it is undeniably close to home, calling his wife Bina by name as he does in the sensuously realized “Your Kisses.” For the most part, however, Williamson looks either down at “These Hands Of Mine” or back along the “Roads” that led him to where he stands. The former tune features a jaunty guitar while the latter’s commentating viola weaves in and out of the loom. In both, the feeling of departure is constant, arrival questionable. And in “The Cards,” a song loosely based on a traditional Irish air “The Coolin” but otherwise ad-libbed in the studio, he offers a cautionary tale against prediction, trusting in reality instead of relying on dreams or elusive signs. Accompanied only by guitar, elastic and supportive of any and all possibilities, he contemplates this dance in what he calls the “soul of souls.” It’s as if he were at a bar alone, the last dart thrown along with last call, but it’s the kind of draft of which every sip tastes as good as the first.
Sitting with this album is like traveling somewhere for a while, much as the musicians did just to bring it all together. Lake sets up the scene:
“Rockfield is a residential studio deep in the Welsh countryside with a long history of recording especially rock music. When we arrived, Mott The Hoople were just finishing a mixing session. We spoke briefly with them. It was slightly odd, almost time-warp inducing, to be in the same room with Mott and Mat Maneri, but strange juxtapositions belong to the journey. I liked living at the studio and had some interesting talks with its owner Kingsley Ward about his early life as a session musician working for Joe Meek in London. There’s a lot of idiosyncratic recording knowledge concentrated at Rockfield. For the session with Robin the mood was positive, friendly and committed. Robin had some songs mapped out on which Mat and Ches were given directives and specific things to play, mostly with some improvisational freedom. And there were some pieces that were wide open to improvising, particularly ‘Just West Of Monmouth,’ ‘Night Comes Quick In LA,’ ‘Swan’ and ‘Islands Of The Inner Firth.’”
The latter songs rest somewhere between speech and singing and flower in freely improvised settings. “Youth burns brighter than neon,” he sings in “Night Comes Quick In LA,” a cynical, bird’s-eye view of superficiality gone rotten in the valley. The beat poetry aesthetic only adds to the acuteness of his poet’s eye. In “Just West Of Monmouth,” Williamson nestles himself in a gravelly accompaniment of percussion, whistles, and bows, unspooling his tale of creation in the rustle of underbrush and thirsty plains. Next is a sojourn into “The Islands Of The Inner Firth,” where awaits the mirror into which we must all someday look:
Now in the October of my life
Beloved and well remembered shore
Your stony verge
You cold and turbulent Scots water
In memory I trace
My kindly haunted past
So begins a summation of a creation and a new beginning of memory strung like a bead on a necklace that is forever growing to fit the thickening neck of experience. And before him is the pond where swims the eternal “Swan,” who joins her “world self / Where air and water meet.” Let us hope that Williamson’s swan has a long time yet before it sings.