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Robin Williamson - Skirting the River Road

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Artist: Robin Williamson

Album: Skirting the River Road

Label: ECM

Review date: Sep. 17, 2003

Carving out niche markets is often the key to success for independent labels. Few have mastered the tactic like ECM, a label with an instantly recognizable sound and look. Austere cover images of Northern European landscapes, a pristine fidelity in recorded sound, and an eclectic roster that draws on a global pool of talent. These are just a few of the imprint’s calling cards.

There’s also a trio of loosely-defined genre branches that most of the label’s music falls under: Modern Classical, Jazz, and a unique mingling of Nordic and Middle Eastern folk forms blended with elements of improvisation that resists existing classification. Artists operating in the lesser known latter sector include Paul Giger, Anouar Brahem and Lena Willemark. Willemark saw some success with her fusion of medieval Swedish folk music with contemporary improvisation on the albums Nordan and Agram. Her partner in those projects was Ale Möller, master of a cache of instruments including mandola, lute, hammered dulcimer, flutes and vibraphone. His presence is also an integral component to Robin Williamson’s recent Skirting the River Road, a project that travels a kindred course.

Williamson is a relatively recent addition to the ECM fold. A founding member of the Incredible String Band, his solo music recalls at various points the Celtic folk strains of Steeleye Span, Pentangle and even echoes of Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull. Where his debut The Seed-at-Zero was a solo affair, this sophomore entry enlists the help of an unexpectedly diverse ensemble of colleagues including Mat Maneri on viola and violin, Paul Dunmall on tenor and soprano saxophones, clarinet, border pipes, ocarina and moxeño, and Mick Hutton on double bass.

Adapting the poetry of Walt Whitman, William Blake and Henry Vaughn, all laureates in their own right, to an odd, but often provocative composite of improvised and composed musical accompaniment, Williamson sets about crafting an arabesque experience that is sometimes capricious, but always ambitious. The all-acoustic setting and Northern European overtones are ideal for Dunmall’s pipes, a facet of his arsenal that is often just as impressive as his facility on reeds, but for some reason receives less attention. Maneri is less served by the occasionally constraining climate and he frequently resorts to a colorist’s role, shaping sparse filigree patterns that are quite different from his usual jazz-oriented work in other environments.

The pieces shuttle by with almost dreamlike opacity moving from the hypnotic drones of “The Morning Joys”. Williamson’s soothing recitations float and lilt in the luminous ether conjured by his partners as the music runs a gamut from the ancient to the future. Some of the lyrics, such as those of Williamson’s own “Here to Burn,” which quotes stanzas of Blake’s “Marriage of Heaven and Hell,” skirt the fringes of clichéd melodrama, but the sincerity of the singer’s sentiments is never left to doubt. Other pieces like “The Four Points are Thus Beheld” mix foreboding flute, string and pipe drones with eruptions of squealing tenor saxophone to punctuate tome-like tales of lost Elysian lands. The epic entry though is a 16- minute musical imagining of Whitman’s naturalistic meditation “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”, which evolves in hypnogogic episodes of freely associative viola, vibes, bass and reeds and allows each the space to stretch.

Adding to the disc’s allure are the handful of black and white session photos included with the notes, which depict the musicians in the midst of creation, stockpiles of instruments surrounding them with a range of sonic possibilities. It’s a long 70-minute plus journey beset with unevenness and indulgences that require patience in spots. But the daring chances Williamson takes with song form, his source materials and delivery style largely pay off with some truly bewitching music.

By Derek Taylor

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