Funeral songs for a low-strung guitar
The first time I saw Billy Jenkins, he was in a pop-art band called Burlesque, in the mid-’70s. They were managed by a friend of mine who worked at Ronnie Scott’s and wanted me to sign them to Island Records. I thought they were clever but lacked a big idea. However they did have a very interesting guitarist, who looked like an urchin from a post-war movie set in the bomb-wrecked wastelands of the East End, and played with a kind of furious inventiveness.
After that I kept an eye on Jenkins. But I went off him in quite a big way some time in the ’80s, when he made a big-band album called Scratches of Spain, which spoofed or satirised or somehow otherwise sent up Miles Davis’s Sketches of Spain, to the extent of presenting itself in a sleeve that defaced the original. For me, despite the presence on the record of most of the members of the admirable Loose Tubes, this was a post-modernist step too far. I loved Miles’s album too much. What was the point of Jenkins’s exercise, beyond drawing attention to himself? (I felt the same, with greater intensity, about the precise facsimile of Kind of Blue recorded last year by Mostly Other People Do the Killing. Sometimes I can’t help taking these things too personally.)
But I never lost the belief that Jenkins was anything other than a very imaginative and quite original guitarist, even though I didn’t keep pace with everything he did. And now he’s made a record that I really like: a download-only release on his own Voice of the People label called Death, Ritual & Resonation. It’s a series of eight solo pieces for low-strung guitar based, unusually enough, on his experiences of seven years conducting humanist funerals — 368 of them, apparently, following training with the British Humanist Association.
I’ve been to a couple of humanist funerals. They can work quite well, although in my experience they tend not to have much of a sense of the numinous. But if his humanist studies and duties were what it took to get this album out of Billy Jenkins, then I’m all for them. The track titles include “Thoughts on Life and Loss”, “Rejoice That They Lived”, and “Walk on in Gratitude”, and the prevailing mood is one of reflection. There are no displays of virtuosity: just a quiet exploration of figures and motifs, with powerful overtones of the country blues and occasional piquant undertones of the English hymnal.
The playing is beautiful throughout, in both the tone Jenkins draws from his instrument and the balance and development of his phrases. Anyone still in mourning for the late John Fahey’s solo guitar meditations should find it particularly rewarding.