Robbie Basho was one of the big three American acoustic guitar innovators, John Fahey and Leo Kottke being the other two. Basho was the least commercially successful of the three, but his influence and reputation has steadily grown since his untimely death in 1986 at the age of 45. And with good reason; for Basho's deeply spiritual approach, intellectual rigor, and formal explorations (among his goals was the creation of a raga system for American music), present a deeply compelling, multi-faceted artist. Basho was actually a college friend of John Fahey, and his early recordings (like Kottke's) were for Fahey's Takoma label. Following Fahey 's move to Vanguard, Basho followed suit, and released Voice of the Eagle and Zarthus for the label in 1972 and 1974, respectively (his most commercially successful records were made for the Windham Hill label later in the decade). Flash forward to 2009: Vanguard contacted guitarist (and long-time Basho champion) Glenn Jones with the intriguing news that an unreleased Robbie Basho album session had recently been found, on a tape that, alas, lacked any real documentation. It was only 12 years later, when Jones, in the process of researching the liner notes for this release, discovered the truth: that not just the mysterious tape but both Voice of the Eagle and Zarthus were the result of one marathon session in 1971 or 1972 recorded in New York City by Vanguard staff engineer Jeffrey Zaraya. Songs of the Great Mystery'The Lost Vanguard Sessions, then, takes its place as the third of the triumvirat of albums Basho recorded for the label, and it is their equal in every way, exploring, in particular, some of the same Native American themes found on Voice of the Eagle. Some of the tunes showed up on later albums in much different forms; 1978's Visions of the Country featured 'A Day in the Life of Lemuria' (re-titled 'Leaf in the Wind') and 'Night Way,' and 'Laughing Thunder, Crawling Thunder' went through various permutations before appearing on 1981's Rainbow Thunder as 'Crashing Thunder.' But for Basho fans, the originals will probably steal the show, particularly 'Song of the Great Mystery,' which, unlike some of the songs here that showcase Basho's singing and piano-playing, brings to the fore his amazing six-string guitar technique and touch. Vanguard briefly put these sessions up digitally when they were located, but Real Gone Music's release represents the first time they have come out in any physical form (and the alternate take of 'A Day in the Life of Lemuria,' also discovered by Jones, has never been heard anywhere). Featuring track-by-track annotation, rare photos (including Basho's own handwritten notes found in the tape box), and remastering by Mike Milchner of SonicVision, Songs of the Great Mystery'The Lost Vanguard Sessions is a timely release heralding the release of a new documentary and an upcoming Basho box set. Available on CD or on a double-LP set pressed in clear vinyl limited to 1000 copies at Gotta Groove Records and housed inside a gatefold jacket. A great American artist, finally getting his due!
During the 1960s, Basho made a string of records for the Takoma label, which was founded by John Fahey. Both men played acoustic guitar and came up on the East Coast folk scene before moving to California. But while each musician made essentially solitary music that used sound and words to externalize the convolutions of their idiosyncratic psyches, they were profoundly different. Fahey’s ingenious instrumentals linked blues and bluegrass techniques to classical compositional ideas, and he often accompanied them with manifestly absurd liner notes that contained critiques of his social circle and the world at large. Basho’s music synthesized gleanings from and imaginations of music from other cultures to realize an escape from that same world into a realm of transcendent wonder, whose dimensions were made explicit by spectacularly supple vocalizations. Then and now, the only singer who matches his vocal athleticism and self-cultivated exotic aura is late Peruvian chanteuse Yma Sumac.
In 1972, Basho signed with Vanguard, the top dog of American folk music, and headed into the studio, ready to produce. In four days, he recorded two albums, Zarthus and Voice Of The Eagle, which celebrated his twin spiritual inspirations: the mystic Meher Baba and Native American culture. That session also included enough music for a third album, but since Vanguard didn’t shift many units of the first two, it stayed on the shelf until its discovery during an effort to digitize the label’s archive in 2009. But these tracks weren’t mere leftovers; annotator Glenn Jones’ scrupulously researched notes describe how revised and re-recorded versions of the material showed up on the remaining records that Basho made between his parting of ways with Vanguard and his death by medical mishap in 1986.
Songs Of The Great Wonder begins and ends with versions of “A Day In The Life Of Lemuria.” Both find Basho on piano instead of his usual guitar, whistling a poignant theme over a rolling keyboard vista that feels closer contemporary work by spiritual jazz artists Alice Coltrane and Don Cherry than any of his Takoma peers. The songs that follow are widescreen epics of imagined nobility. “Butterfly Of Wonder” may get the geographic particulars of the Monarch butterfly’s migration wrong, but it renders the arduousness of the journey in vividly romantic detail. “Kateri Takewitha” dramatizes the story of a Mohawk princess who became a Catholic saint. And a sequence of songs with the word “thunder” celebrates the wildness of weather with untrammeled vocal gymnastics. On these songs, Basho’s guitar is like a Hollywood orchestra, using galloping tempos and rich tonal colors to dramatize his tales. But for fans of his unadulterated picking, there’s the title tune, a winding, multi-sectioned piece that showcases the technical rigor necessary to express rhapsodic sentiments.
2020 is a good time to be a Robbie Basho fan. Filmmaker Liam Baker’s 2015 portrait, Voice Of The Eagle: The Enigma Of Robbie Basho, was recently released on DVD with hours of extra footage, and a boxed set of material that was extracted from storage during the movie’s making is planned for release by Tompkins Square after the COVID-19 epidemic takes its heavy foot off the brakes. But while Songs Of The Great Mystery is narrower in scope than those efforts, it’s no less essential. (Bill Meyer)