Robin Williamson: Trusting In The Rising Light (ECM 2393)

Trusting In The Rising Light

Robin Williamson
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.

RW

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
Long long
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
I trace
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.

(See this article as it originally appeared in RootsWorld online magazine, where you can also hear sample clips. To hear more of Trusting In The Rising Light, click here.)

Robin Williamson: The Iron Stone (ECM 1969)

The Iron Stone

Robin Williamson
The Iron Stone

Robin Williamson vocals, Celtic harp, Mohan vina, Chinese flute, whistles, tabwrdd drum
Mat Maneri viola, Hardanger fiddle
Barre Phillips double-bass
Ale Möller mandola, accordion, clarino, shawm, natural flutes, drone flutes, whistles, jaw harps
Recorded September 2005, Mill House, Abergavenny
Engineer: Steve Lowe
Assistant: Dylan Fowler
Produced by Steve Lake

“Is it not strange that sheep’s guts could hail souls out of men’s bodies?”
–William Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing

From, but not to: this is the direction Robin Williamson travels by. For his third ECM outing, the man who puts the “true” in troubadour rejoins viola player Mat Maneri and fellow multi-instrumentalist Ale Möller, and plays for the first time alongside bassist Barre Phillips in tapping a trove of words by Sirs Walter Raleigh and Thomas Wyatt, Ralph Waldo Emerson, John Clare, and of course Williamson himself. “The Climber” offers a transportive introduction to this album’s relatively distant considerations, carrying us up through the clouds and into the moist particles of their origins. Improvised around the bard’s words, the music crawls and stretches, working its gnarled trunk around such shadows as “There Is A Music”—an ode to becoming that is played, as he sings, on the harp-haired gods by the fingers of tomorrow—and Emerson’s “Bacchus.” The last is the most heart-wrenching song of the set, a tale of forlorn tendrils and other fermentations caught in a butterfly’s wingspan.

There is an aged quality to the medieval Scots ballad “Sir Patrick Spens,” which through the arrangement here concedes to the palettes of coarser skies. It is not by mere virtue of Williamson’s years but fundamentally by perseverance of the tune itself that cuts the strings of time and marks wherever it may land. The fragility of Williamson’s telling gives impenetrable strength to the verses. Despite coming early in the program, this song drips with finality, drinking its vagaries through the scratching of bows and wistful sighs. The jaw harp trembles like the hearts of its characters, their lives tossed about the waves like discarded and shattered casks.

Williamson
(Photo by Jerry Young)

It is a stony and tender grave that harbors the melody of “Even Such Is Time,” which comes from “Lament For His Sister” by Rory Dall Morison—who, Williamson informs us in his liner notes, was one of the last traditional highland harpers—and replaces those words with Raleigh’s unconditional roundness. “Loftus Jones,” with music by Turlough O’Carolan, gets a vocal facelift. At Phillips’s suggestion, the group takes a “floating” approach to its wordless narrative. It calls to a different plane of our psyche, treading with carefully weighted soles on the sands of our adoration. Yet even these delicacies cannot help but dislodge a broken feeling or two from their interment, their bones having given up the ghost long ago for cloudy tragedies.

Also remarkable are this album’s evocations of animal life. A winding flute introduces us to “The Yellow Snake,” a somber tale of use and replenishment in a never-ending cycle of the elements of which the human body is composed and by which that same body does its deeds. “The Praises of the Mountain Hare” unearths a soothsayer’s gift, serrated like the mountain shawm that dances down its eastern slope, while in “The Badger” (Clare) Phillips’s scuttling phrasing mimes its eponym. A haunting instrumental epilogue draws us into “Political Lies,” among the more inescapable melodies of the Williamson songbook. In this tale of rearing recollections and broken realities, the history of mystery falls into its own rhyme and reason. The jangly slide guitar and thin-lipped poetry of the title track highlights a darkened wit about these follicles. “To God In God’s Absence” returns from its solo incarnation in The seed-at-zero in a fuller yet somehow more delicate version. No less intense for its adornments, it is Williamson at his finest. And there is, too, his stunning harp accompaniment to “Wyatt’s Song of Reproach,” a kiss to a visage half lit. “Verses at Ellesmere” is a flower of similar make. A ballad for his wife, Bina, if not also for love of balladry, it touches the ever green-ness of things and marks it with an insignia of most idiosyncratic design. These musings can only end with the open-ended “Henceforth,” which drops as a stone into a reflected sky, plying the reaches of dreams and bringing Williamson’s footprints full circle to the many copses and paths that hatch in his art.

The emphasis on spoken word and freer improvisatory elements on this record may polarize listeners. Nevertheless, let them not be a warning but an invitation. For in the grand scheme of sonic things, the truth of delivery reigns. The diction says it all: I am mortal, that I may sing of immortal things.

Robin Williamson: Skirting The River Road (ECM 1785)

Robin Williamson
Skirting The River Road

Robin Williamson vocals, harp, guitar, whistles
Mat Maneri viola, violin
Paul Dunmall tenor and soprano saxophones, clarinet, border pipes, ocarina, moxeño
Ale Möller mandola, lute, hammered dulcimer, shawm, clarino, drone flutes, natural flutes, bamboo flutes, vibraphone
Mick Hutton double-bass
Recorded March/April 2001 at Gateway Studios, Kingston-Upon-Thames
Engineer: Steve Lowe
Mixed at Albany Productions Ltd, Cardiff
Engineer: Lawson Dando
Produced by Steve Lake

No bird soars too high if he soars with his own wings.
–William Blake

These words have it: despite the mystic winds he rides, Robin Williamson flies close to the ground. He keeps us in sight. He wanders as he speaks, voice rising like the morning’s rooster even as it plunges a laborer’s tools into wet concrete. It is a storm in a teacup, the laugh inside a tear. For his sophomore ECM date, the Scottish singer/songwriter joins musicians whose participation is as unlikely as it is inevitable. With multi-instrumentalists Paul Dunmall and Ale Möller, viol(in)ist Mat Maneri, and bassist Mick Hutton at his side, he trudges his peerless way into fifteen territories under the banner “Songs and Settings of Whitman, Blake and Vaughan.” It is Blake whose legacy weighs heaviest on the scale, reaching the value of an ingot in “The Four Points Are Thus Beheld.” On the surface a lesson in cardinal perception, it is more deeply a catacomb riddled with improvisatory petroglyphs. Dunmall on tenor paints the most dynamic of these while strains of hammered dulcimer pluck the invisible strings that loom the stars with acoustic force. This opens into rich and sharply defined border pipes and peaks in meteorites of sustenance. Like the compass therein, Skirting The River Road has four hearts, for one must add Williamson himself to the subtitle’s list of three. The album carries the lantern of its main title from his “Dalliance Of Eagles.” Resting on a fulcrum of bass and framed by a wordless circle, his verse swivels from past to future and back again at a single breath. “The Journey” unravels its eponym in a pathway of hard-won disregard that recognizes the privilege of its vantage point. Further, “The Map With No North” crochets from every utterance a life bound by the dried skins of wayfarers, casting its far twisted spells for our naked scrutiny. A masterpiece.

Another original, “West From California’s Shores,” adds a drop of dawn to this dusky crucible that delights me. Not only because I am only now discovering the varietal delights of Williamson’s craft, but also because the title takes me back to Fairfax, the small town in northern California where I spent the first twelve years of my life. His animated travelogue drapes smiles like garlands along the neck of experience and underscores the travels that have since taken me far from home. One of Fairfax’s most unforgettable fixtures was The Sleeping Lady, a café and music venue where my mother could be found singing from time to time, and where my father saw Williamson perform with his Merry Band in the early 1980s. Sadly, I was with a babysitter during the show. Aside from the colorful instrumentation, which included the haunting mandocello at the bard’s fingertips, my father recalls harpist Sylvia Woods shooting rubber-tipped arrows from her strings (much to the audience’s chagrin) while the band engaged in bawdy banter in between songs. Above all, he remembers a comment that Williamson made: “The band members and I feel that the best kind of joke is something you can barely laugh at.” We can hear something of that wryness in this tune, so distinct from its gorgeously dour surroundings.

Yet let us not ignore the awakening of “The Morning Watch/A Song Of Joys.” This Whitman/Vaughan diptych opens the program by splashing a ray of golden light across pasture, thereby setting the blend of Williamson’s fullness at the helm and the ornamentation of his crew. A buttery soprano lends notably warm hues to the spectrum on deck, while Maneri’s viola flicks his hairs with programmatic brilliance in “Here To Burn.” Another Blake setting, it sits like its protagonist at a box of masks and destroys them one by one, making note of each parched expression before it fades. “Abstinence Sows Sand” is yet another. It takes some of the Indian influence that imbued much of the earlier Incredible String Band experiments and spins it afresh in dyed reeds. And then, there is “Infant Joy,” with which, as a new father ten weeks into a lifelong journey, I cannot help but hum in sympathetic resonance. Its articulation opens the gift of new life and finds within it infinitely more.

“The Terrible Doubt/The Price Of Experience” is a dire prologue that casts shadows over idyllic life and brings light to the wick of death to which we all must touch a flame. Infirmity looms outside the door of every private joy. This is linked by a lively “Shepherd’s Tune” on pipe into the web of “The Spider,” which along with “The Fly” fills a grave with filamented ale. Whitman makes a late reappearance in “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.” His strong shadow claps a palm on our backs and guides us through the waters of its epic passage. Upon arrival, “The World Of Light” welcomes us: our immigrant soul turned inside out and signed by the promise of another livelihood.

Williamson doesn’t so much draw out notes as knead them into thumb-printed strands, so that by the end one remembers not the music so much as the histories it activates. Vibrato lies dead by the wayside, caught among the bramble of virtuosos who look on from their perches of fatigue. In its place, the rawness of forgotten things. Skirting The River Road is therefore more than an album. It is an interaction of the deepest kind. Every song is its own entity standing beside Time’s crystal, which with every turn catches the light ever so differently as children awaken to replace others in forever-sleep.

Robin Williamson: The seed-at-zero (ECM 1732)

Robin Williamson
The seed-at-zero

Robin Williamson vocals, guitar, harp, mandolin
Recorded March 2000 at Albany Productions Ltd, Cardiff
Engineer: Lawson Dando
Produced by Steve Lake

Let us paint library on the library…

“Salt of the earth” comes nowhere close to describing Scottish singer/songwriter Robin Williamson. He is, rather, earth of the salt: when caught in his bardic gaze, we cannot help but take a step beyond the minerals that make up our world and see in them an entirely new one. On his ECM debut, Williamson brings three strands together for a thick and brindled braid. First is the poetry of Dylan Thomas, which he sets to appropriate effect at lips and fingers as if it were hemp with which to weave a basket. Second are the related Welsh strands of Henry Vaughan, Llywarch Hen, and Idris Davies, which are the capture spiral of the ensuing web. Third is the songbook of Williamson himself, who had by this time shaped four decades of craft into a solo art. Armed with only a guitar, a harp, and his own throaty blade, he goes trundling through the undergrowth of joys and wars.

Having once improvised to Thomas’s words for a theater production based on the poet’s life (Geoff Moore’s Prospect of the Sea, 1984/85), Williamson draws on that internal puddle and fashions from it a dark and choppy sea. He sets his boat adrift yet remains on shore, introducing us to broken shells with words from Vaughan in “The World.” Here the voice builds a starfish pore by pore. The title track paints less jaggedly, in ochre and ash. Williamson’s register reveals itself as a different species, and we as mere children who gather round starry-eyed and hungry for tales of yore and the yet to be. In this metaphorical seascape, heroes blend into the living and the dead alike.

This leads us into a most enchanting triptych. First is “Skull And Nettlework.” One of Williamson’s own, it emotes like the artistry of Patrick Ball steeped in a brew of ancestral grievances. In its images are many scales. Of neither fish nor dragon, they gleam of their own accord, beyond the narrative strokes trying to whittle them into something recognizable. The balance between the two registers—string and throat—is inescapably harmonious. It is a ribcage sheltering flames that flicker at the expulsion of Thomas’s “Holy Spring” before opening the cap of a scrimshawed horn in “To God In God’s Absence.” Here is Williamson’s soul on stoneware, alive and impervious to prod of fork and interpretation.

Thomas bleeds in multiple directions throughout the program, at times inscribing verses across the backsides of our hides (“In My Craft Or Sullen Art”), at others dancing to the clink of emotional coinage (“On No Work Of Words”), at still others galloping along the stringed hills with the touch of knowing fingertips, as in “Hold Hard, These Ancient Minutes In The Cuckoo’s Month.” Just as the latter is a catalogue of calendrical time, so is “Poem On His Birthday” a charting of avian life and watery graves. And though melodies launch themselves in the occasional skyward arc, they always settle in the spoken word, where the quaking peace of breath trickles down the throat of a premature end.

Half-spoken, half-sung, if not both at once, “Lament Of The Old Man” is an ode to small things that, without care, bring us pleasure in spite of the heartless land, crooked like a stick bent under the weight of an aging shepherd. Memories of sprightly pasture abound in “Verses At Balwearie Tower.” They dance around the spring of human joy where bathe our transgressions, naked and mute. “Can y Gwynt” is a riddle of creation that fills our cupped hands with the waters of the Weary Well. Under its watchful eyes, wishful romance blossoms away from ours: a memory that tickles the scalp at night and quivers in the reflection of an ale glass by day. Keystones interlock in “The Bells Of Rhymney.” Set to Pete Seeger’s tune, it trips along a trail of ifs on the way to an unborn then and glows like light pollution in low cloud cover—pink yet tinged by the gray of a passing storm. With the decayed smile of a tree-lined horizon, “The Barley” welcomes us to settlement. Williamson drags his feet through the mud in “Cold Days Of February,” clear now in the hierarchy that one censored this old protest song. In its present restored form, it speaks with the power of Ken Loach’s The Wind that Shakes the Barley, a song from the lips of veterans and those too conscionable to fight. It lumbers through foggy paths and obscured vistas of blood-soaked battleground, leaving us paging through “For Mr Thomas” as an epilogue, if not an epitaph, to the album’s inscrutable muse.

Where others have explored Dylan Thomas and his roots, Robin Williamson has tapped them and siphoned the visceral bite of their learning. Their taste may challenge our complacent buds, but never for want of sincerity. Even if we’ve never heard them before, we can be sure these odes to the unlit dark and the snuffed flame have heard us. They know us that well. And if this smirking scholar has anything meaningful to offer in return, let it ultimately be my admiration—the only poetry I can muster.

If purity is a throwaway concept, it has been reborn here.