James Blackshaw

Litany of Echoes

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British acoustic 12-string guitarist James Blackshaw has been celebrated as an innovator on his instrument since he first arrived on the scene with Celeste in 2004 -- it was released in a CD-R edition of 80 copies. Blackshaw knocked out five more releases in the ensuing four years, all of which have been reissued on New York's wonderful Tompkins Square imprint, a label that has devoted itself to classic and outsider music since its inception. Blackshaw, who was deeply influenced by the late Robbie Basho, has found his own path through use of unusual and custom-created tunings based on both Eastern and Western scales, but has also been throwing a few curve balls in the last few years -- most notably the use of electronics, dissonance, and the beautifully stretched harmonics of violinist/violist Fran Bury on the brilliant Cloud of Unknowing release from 2007. Bury returns here but in a very different capacity on the mutant classical repetitions of "Gate of Ivory," playing both violin and viola on the bookend tracks on the album. The strains of the lower instrument are used as a drone against Blackshaw's piano. His hammering, repetitive, and choppy phraseology is accented and droned upon underneath and through by Bury for five and a half minutes in a piece that, while derived from Philip Glass and Steve Reich, goes so much further because of the overtones on viola. On "Gate of Horn," the same phrase is used by Blackshaw's piano -- both cuts are close in length to one another -- and Bury uses the higher instrument this time out, screeching into its high register à la Warren Ellis of the Dirty Three. But that dissonance, covered as it is by the piano's constant pulsing rhythm, never quite turns ugly. In fact, it is transcendentally beautiful.

Bury also accompanies Blackshaw (this time on the guitar), more subtly this time, on the viola in the middle of the set on "Infinite Circle." This is a stunning work of field-opening bliss, evoking loneliness, return, and beginning again. In addition to these relatively short pieces, there are three long works as well. Bury is multi-tracked on "Past Has Not Passed," and the duet combination where both violin and violas soar, swoop, and whisper in the backdrop brings out the most emotional tenets in Blackshaw's gift -- wrapping harmony and timbre around itself to slip various threads of nearly hidden melody into the mix and respond to Bury's phrases. "Echo and Abyss" and "Shroud" are two solo guitar works that clock in at just under and just over 12 minutes. This is Blackshaw as we know him, with one large difference: his use of space and the natural echo of the 12-string as a compositional device. He doesn't simply employ harmonics; he employs the wood of the guitar as a natural reflective sonic surface. There is no tape manipulation or overdubbing. The sound you hear is what he plays, but it's as varied -- even more so -- than the pedal effects on a piano. However you choose to hear this, you will not be disappointed. Of his peers -- Jack Rose, Sir Richard Bishop, and Steffen Basho-Junghans -- Blackshaw is the youngest and most exciting to listen to (regardless of who may be more proficient among this quartet; they're all amazing). His complete immersion in the 12-string sets him apart a bit. And for an instrument that can be limited because of its lack of flexibility, he pushes it in new directions constantly.

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