James Blackshaw - "Gate of Ivory" (Litany of Echoes)
Just in case you weren’t paying attention, James Blackshaw reminds you straightaway: he is a composer first, a guitar player second. His latest full-length opens with “Gate of Ivory,” a feature for Blackshaw’s piano playing. Sure, his much-discussed guitar virtuosity is apparent throughout Litany of Echoes, and his 12-string is still the main instrument, but the album really showcases how well he’s integrated – and expanded upon – his considerable influences.
Whereas on past records Blackshaw tended to present a mixed bag of ideas along with his riveting guitar work (such as the Takoma revenants and electronic treatments on Celeste, or the dense passages of string dissonance on last year’s Cloud of Unknowing), the six pieces here show remarkable restraint and concision. Fran Bury's violin and viola play a key role on “Past Has Not Passed,” droning away below Blackshaw’s theme and providing subtle harmonic shifts. “Infinite Circle” works layers of flowing piano deep into the piece’s musculature. This expanded palette is not an adornment, but a real attempt to build a thick, ravishing sound.
Speaking of ravishing sounds, Litany evinces the immersive simplicity of Morton Feldman’s Rothko Chapel. And even though Blackshaw often uses tunings of his own invention, one doesn’t have to work hard to make sense of them – intuition trumps intellectualism. Of course, in its dynamics Blackshaw’s music is nothing like Feldman’s. For that, one should think of the rapid, seething melodic undertow of Terry Riley’s Harp of New Albion or Lubomyr Melnyk’s piano works. Blackshaw’s default tempo is fast, to the point that his finely articulated notes start to blur and run, and, like a Rothko canvas, he uses every available inch of space. He seems to have taken another key inspiration from Feldman, what composer
as the way Feldman helped composers by saying it was actually liberating to limit one’s style.
So, yes, much of what you hear on here is familiar ground for Blackshaw veterans. There are his subtle droning foundations, overlaid with short and simple themes and pushed along by irresistible, midstream harmonic shifts. The effect is also similar, that of weightlessness and wonder. No surprises – just a stunning level of accomplishment that pulls you along with it. Litany of Echoes is not the sound of Blackshaw finding his voice; it’s the sound of him perfecting it.