Scottish singer/multi-instrumentalist Robin Williamson continues to mine the nexus of traditional song and free improvisation on The Iron Stone
. Back from Skirting the River Road
(ECM, 2002) are Mat Maneri (viola and Hardanger fiddle) and Swedish traditionalist Ale Möller (on a plethora of instruments plucked, pressed or blown), while renowned bassist Barre Phillips makes his first appearance with Williamson. Departing from Skirting
's verse by Walt Whitman, William Blake and Henry Vaughan, Williamson looks to Walter Raleigh, Thomas Wyatt, John Clare and Ralph Waldo Emerson for inspiration, in addition to his own words and music.
That traditional folk song and free improvisation can coexist so organically is what has made Williamson's work for ECM so uniquely compelling. The collaborations of Skirting and Stone are the brainchild of producer Steve Lake, who saw the potential for common ground between these musicians despite their apparent stylistic differences.
If Skirting proved his instincts correct then The Iron Stone takes things a step further with the recruitment of Phillips, who has worked with Maneri in a trio with father Joe Maneri since the late '90s. The result is a preexisting chemistry that makes the spoken word and almost telepathically integrated improvised music on Williamson's "The Climber dark and, despite its free nature, hauntingly lyrical.
Fairport Convention covered the traditional "Sir Patrick Spens on its classic Full House (Island, 1970) but, words aside, there's little in Williamson's take to tie it to Fairport's backbeat-driven version. Instead, Williamson's raw but evocative and oftentimes vulnerable voice winds its way through an arrangement driven by Williamson's delicately rhythmic Celtic harp, arco bass, viola and Möller's jaws harps. There are instrumental passages, but it's a collective approach to extemporization rather than clearly delineated solos.
As dark as the subject matter can sometimes be, there are moments of unequivocal beauty. "Wyatt's Song of Reproach is elegant and transcendent, while the Turlough O'Carolan instrumental, "Loftus Jones, demonstrates the quartet's ability to use temporal elasticity and nuanced interaction to create a lush soundscape that approaches the sheer calm of silence while drawing the listener ever in with its soft majesty. Even Williamson's "To God in God's Absence, a title that could suggest despair, is ultimately hopeful, supported by the instrumental ebb and flow of bowed strings and the occasional flurries of whistle.
The ensemble stretches the sonic possibilities of this already intrepid stylistic cross-pollination by including instruments from other cultures (the stringed, slide guitar-like Indian mohan vina and Chinese flute) and other times (the Renaissance-era double-reed shawm and Baroque-era brass clarino).
Traditionalists may find The Iron Stone too far removed to be credible. But Williamson and his group are forging a new approach to tradition, where greater interpretive latitude extends beyond fixed form and allows for greater textural, harmonic and melodic breadth. It's The Iron Stone's intentional departure from convention that makes it an album that's both reverent of its sources' epochs while remaining truly timeless and, ultimately, forward-looking.
Robin Williamson: vocals, Celtic harp, mohan vina, Chinese flute, whistles, tabwrdd drum; Mat Maneri: viola,
hardanger fiddle; Barre Phillips: bass; Ale M