Gigspanner Big Band : Natural Invention10 April 2020
Peter Knight has collaborated, experimented and extemporised across almost five decades, most notably in classic Steeleye Span line-ups and in his own Gigspanner trio, which he formed with accomplished guitarist Robert Flack and percussionist Sacha Trochet in 2009.
He has now stepped into the studio with an expanded Gigspanner ensemble, including BBC Folk Award winners Phillip Henry and Hannah Martin (Edgelarks), who joined the live band setup in 2016, and John Spiers (Bellowhead, Boden & Spiers), seemingly the last vital piece of a brilliant musical jigsaw.
Awake, Awake, taken from Cecil Sharp's English Folk Songs from the Southern Appalachians, claims first place in the resultant recordings. The Gigspanner Big Band announce their full intent with a beautiful version of the song. Hannah Martin's delicate, soulful vocal lead is threaded through a shifting instrumental background, which seamlessly segues into Ellen Smith, a bright, upbeat tune driven by Knight's gambolling fiddle and detailed by Phil Henry's understated dobro.
After that opening, Natural Invention elevates from just extraordinary to revelatory - with the three tracks that follow Awake, Awake particularly strong.
Long A Growing is sung by Knight, its spare, heavy-hearted mood superbly edged by Spiers' concertina.
Hannah Martin's heavenly voice takes the lead again for a stately reading of Searching For Lambs, with the band's instrumental colours illuminating the song like it was a monastic manuscript.
As with other pieces here, Knight has recorded Betsy Bell and Mary Grey before, for Steeleye's 1989 album Tempted and Tried. This is a radically different take. The melancholic Scottish song, a Child ballad, tells of lairds' daughters trying to escape a plague in a remote bowyer - in this version their fate is drummed out with trepidation.
As if to offer respite from such riches, Daddy Fox then offers a very different mood; the song (written in the 15th century) coasts deceptively to a sudden explosion of bluegrass momentum, with Phil Henry's beatbox harmonica irreverently chasing Spiers' intoxicating accordion to match the lyric's rueful comic exuberance.
The shanty Haul on the Bowline delivers another twist, atmospherically sung by John Spiers, and morphing into the ecstatic fluid energy of a hornpipe based on a Breton tune.
The closing run is none too shabby either.
If Hannah Martin has given a more compelling vocal performance than the quiet drama she reserved for the recording of Earl Brand here, I have not heard it. The song is rendered in all its inherent subtle beauty.
The arrangement of the well known old English song, The Snows They Melt The Soonest, mixes percussive verses with looser, elliptical instrumental passages to sublime effect.
Opened by Knight's haunting fiddle, Courting is a Pleasure is sung by Hannah Martin, who learnt it from Nic Jones (it features on his seminal LP, Penguin Eggs), and you cannot say fairer than she and her cohorts do the master's work full justice.
Natural Invention comes to a close with nine minutes of instrumental rapture presented in the form of The Star of Munster and Reel du Tricentenaire, a concatenation that reaches a crescendo of excitement with a vibrant interchange between Flack's flawless rip of electric guitar, Trochet's euphoric percussion, Knight's fiddle and Spiers' dancing melodeon.
After even a cursory listen, 'folk' might seem to tight a boundary to contain this band's sound. They slip between genres as lightly as a butterfly drifts from flower to flower in a summer daze - jazz, bluegrass and classical influences are all clear, and crucially coupled with rare, deep musical empathy between the players.
An hour-long trip of musical delight, Natural Invention is a stunning achievement - perhaps one of the most sophisticated and enchanting folk albums ever released. The ten song set definitively demonstrates how traditional music can reach celestial heights whilst keeping its grounded roots; if you were looking for a new CD to cherish until you hang up your headphones for the very final time, then here it is.
GIGSPANNER I Awake, Awake
GIGSPANNER I Earl Brand