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Brilliant Guitarist Bert Jansch: An Appreciation

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Bert Jansch, one of the central figures of the 1960s and '70s British folk music scene, died Wednesday morning. Both as a solo artist and as a member of the group Pentangle, the guitarist, singer and composer influenced a wide range of musicians from Paul Simon to Jimmy Page, as well as younger players such as Devendra Banhart and Beth Orton. Jansch died in London after a battle with lung cancer. He was 67.

One of my favorite musical memories is of seeing Pentangle perform at Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C., sometime around 1971. I was a huge fan (still am) and I bought a box-seat ticket. I went by myself and settled into my box alone; the concert was far from sold out, which I had a hard time believing. The band came out — singer Jacqui McShee, guitarist John Renbourn, bass player Danny Thompson (who I have to say right here is, for my money, one of the best acoustic bassists alive today), drummer Terry Cox and Bert Jansch singing and playing guitar — and sat down in a rough semi-circle.

From the first note, I was transported. Then I felt a tap on my shoulder. It was the band's sound guy. Very quietly and very politely, he advised me that the sound was much better down in the orchestra section! So I went down and, though the view wasn't as good, he was right. I'll always cherish the memory of someone caring enough about his charges and about the quality of their sound that he made the rounds to make sure the audience got the most out of the music.

The band was just as careful with what was back then a radically free approach to traditional British folk music. They were all improvisers, and they set traditional lyrics to syncopated rhythms in arrangements that, while carefully crafted, let each musician soar on her or his own. Pentangle was like the Modern Jazz Quartet riding a border between Baroque and Renaissance music, folk and rock. The group was also a crucial, but very different, part of the musical upheaval that embroiled folk and rock in Britain at the time. Fairport Convention may be better known for its contributions to bridging those two genres, but Pentangle was just as important.

So were Jansch's efforts apart from the band. His debut, Bert Jansch, sold a reported 150,000 copies after it came out in 1965 — pretty impressive for a new talent recording on a home tape machine, just him and his guitar and a voice that had a nasal quality perfectly suited to his songs.

His guitar playing could be both gentle and percussively ear-grabbing. A year after his debut, Jansch recorded a mostly instrumental disc with his then-flatmate, John Renbourn, that remains one of my favorites to this day. Bert and John is one of those records that just makes you smile. Years later, I helped prep colleague Neal Conan for an interview with Andy Summers about an album of duets with former Soft Machine guitarist John Etheridge. I told Neal it reminded me a lot of Bert and John. Later, Neal came by my desk to say that the interview got off to a rocky start, but that as soon as he mentioned Jansch and Renbourn, Summers lit up. Turns out the album was an influence on him.

My favorite Bert Jansch solo album is Avocet, a collection of original compositions inspired by water birds. Jansch plays a variety of instruments on the album, from guitar to cittern — even piano. I have it on LP and haven't listened to it in years, but it still conjures a mood in my mind — of solitude by still water. It also seems, according to Colin Harper's 2006 book Dazzling Stranger: Bert Jansch and the British Folk and Blues Revival (Bloomsbury), that it was one of his more than two dozen albums that he liked best.

Bert Jansch, John Renbourn and that whole crew of British musicians will always be an important part of my life. Maybe their music's not for everybody — there's something bittersweet about it. But it tells stories, peopled with characters from olden times and from today. Things happen in these songs that keep you listening for the next verse. What more could you want from music — or from any art form?

Tom Cole is an editor on the Arts Desk here at NPR ... He's also had a fabulous guitar show for nearly 35 years on WPFW here in Washington, DC called G-Strings.

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Tom Cole is a senior editor on NPR's Arts Desk. He develops, edits, produces, and reports on stories about art, culture, music, film, and theater for NPR's news magazines Morning Edition, Weekend Edition, and All Things Considered. Cole has held these responsibilities since February 1990.
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