Robbie Basho had all the requisite trappings of a musical eccentric. So states John Fahey in his posthumously published sleeve notes to this second compendium of the enigmatic guitarist’s work for Fahey’s own Takoma label. While Fahey’s reminiscences often poke fun Basho’s fabricated persona (and ironically cite several critiques that could just as easily be leveled against Fahey himself) they also reflect an underlying respect for the man, both as musician and stylistic original.
Fancying himself the reincarnation of a 17th century Japanese poet and adopting the deceased man’s name Basho set about inventing a new guise for himself in the Berkeley of the late 1960s. Like the cleverest of raconteurs he took existing traditions, techniques and philosophies and funneled them through his own highly personalized (if skewed) worldview. The end outcome was a body of work and a method of guitar playing that defied rote categorization and went on to influence a legion of students. According to Fahey, Basho’s mystique and popularity rose to such a degree at one point that a cult of sorts sprang up around him during his later Berkeley days.
Elements of Indian raga structures, American and East Asian folk tunings, Native American cosmological themes and a healthy dose of improvisation swirled together in Basho’s mind creating a music both instantly recognizable and hauntingly devoid of precedent. Pieces like “Lost Lagoon Suite” stretch on for extended lengths and are beautifully trance-like both in design and implementation. Shifting between shimmering drones and open-ended chords Basho’s fingers unbolt doors to vast imaginative vistas and its difficult to resist getting caught up in the grandeur of his creations. His tunes work on multiple levels from simple and soothing relaxation music, to intricately crafted and chimerical paeans to dramatic dreamed up worlds.
Where this sophomore compilation differs from its predecessor ( Guitar Soli, also available from Fantasy) is in the heightened emphasis on the vocal facets of the guitarist’s music. Favoring stark recitations as on “A North American Raga” or warbling yodel-like croons as on “Pasha” his vocals take some getting used to but ultimately reveal an equally original voice. In tandem with his idiosyncratic fretwork they make for a listening experience that is at once galvanizing and assuaging.
After Basho’s death in 1986 the handful of records he released on Takoma became collector’s curiosities and his music, if not influence was largely submerged. Fantasy rectifies this slight through these generous gatherings of his work. Followers of Fahey, Kottke and in a broader sense solo acoustic guitar in general should consider both discs essential purchases.
Fantasy on the web: http://www.fantasyjazz.com
Personnel: Robbie Basho- concert steel guitar, 6 and 12-string guitars, vocals; uncredited tabla. Recorded: 1967 and 1968.