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Sir Richard Bishop - Improvika

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Artist: Sir Richard Bishop

Album: Improvika

Label: Locust

Review date: Dec. 2, 2004


Sir Richard Bishop dealer in occult books and paper ephemera, alongside brother Alan a frequent consort to the appropriately titled Sublime Frequencies label, and of course, one-third of the ramshackle, sonic poly-hedron known as the Sun City Girls is a renaissance man if ever there was one. While the forays into world music under the Sublime label and the Sun City Girls' prodigious and oft-bewildering recordings can be daunting to those not already fully immersed, Bishop has quietly maintained a sporadic solo career, beginning with the sublime, transcendent and unheralded Salvador Kali in 1998, released courtesy of the dearly departed John Fahey's Revenant. After turning up on last year's equally marvelous Wooden Guitar compilation, Bishop returns with Improvika, his second solo album and first in a series for Locust that will celebrate long-form releases from the four instrumentalists on the aforementioned comp.

Viewing Bishop's solo work through the veil of the Sun City Girls is a natural reflex, and yet it's also a somewhat misleading one. Whereas the group follows their influence and desire to the farthest corners of the earth, Bishop reins things in a bit when he's by himself. To be sure, he follows many of the same influences that can pop up here and there on various Girls' releases, but on Improvika he restricts himself to reinterpretations solely on an acoustic guitar, thus tying together a variety of sounds in ways that the Sun City Girls often don't. While that group's output is no less monumental in spite of its globe-hopping attention deficit disorder, following it over the course of a myriad of albums can be disorienting and at times frustrating, to say the least.

Sir Richard Bishop, however, uses this album to pursue a cohesive set of acoustic-based improvisations. Unlike Jack Rose and Steffen Basho-Junghans, Bishop eschews the ubiquitous Takoma folk-blues influences for a more nuanced and worldly approach. And even more so than those other contemporaries, Bishop's technique and style have less to do with virtuosity and supreme technical application and more to do with gut-instinct and a free-wheeling sense of incorporating any sound that fits.

"Rudra's Feast" is perhaps the best track of the nine here, beginning simply enough as Bishop sounds his way through various runs. The track takes off as he gains his footing, however, allowing Bishop to tear through scales and strains of gypsy folk that often feel as though they're on the verge of complete disintegration. His fingers, though, know the nimble route home, and no matter how far out he goes, Bishop always manages to retain a melodic sense of beauty. After a pensive initial coda, "Jaisalmer" reveals frantic spin through arabesque structures and sounds, revealing a hectic intensity that posits its own intuitive rhythm. "Mystic Minor 23" tones things down a bit, with Bishop opening his guitar up to a wonderfully understated Latin figure. "Tripurasundari" completes an excellent three-part song cycle, this time tempering subtle blues variations against more Latin themes to form a complex, compelling and deeply intimate raga, climaxing with intoxicatingly simple strums.

A casual listen to Improvika might cast doubt or skepticism on Bishop's solo work. After all, it appears at times as though he has less control over his instrument than other practitioners of a similar pedigree. But technical prowess is far from the point. It's less as an extended exercise in technique and composition, and more a stunning example of energy, emotion and creativity. The performances here can be rough hewn and chaotic at times, but they are no worse off for it. Rather, Improvika displays an intuitive sense of complexity and a beguiling breadth of emotion and energy that has to be heard to be believed.

By Michael Crumsho

Other Reviews of Sir Richard Bishop

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Polytheistic Fragments

The Freak of Araby

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