Robbie Basho is now recognized as one of the great guitar players of the 20th century, ranking alongside acoustic innovators such as John Fahey and Leo Kottke for his expansive redefinition of how a steel string guitar might sound. This live recording, laid to tape in late 1980 just six years before Basho’s death, provides a very intimate glimpse into his genius. Here you can observe him in his natural element, not just coaxing an orchestra’s worth of sounds from his 12-string, but also retuning, venturing a few phrases in German and apologizing for the “fussiness” of a 115-year-old instrument.
Like many of his contemporaries, Basho refused to be pigeonholed into any single style. His music incorporated Appalachian folk, deep southern blues, raga and European classical influences. He took his name “Basho” from a Japanese poet and experimented with Asian scales and tonalities in his work as well. This disc gives a reasonably good overview of where Basho had traveled during his career. “California Raga” recorded on 1971’s Song of the Stallion shows how Basho first began splicing together American and Celtic folk melodies with the piercing tonalities of classical Indian raga. He sings on this piece, in addition to playing, in a high stirring voice that is, perhaps, not as accomplished as his fingers, but spiritually moving all the same.
You also get a taste of his classical side. Basho believed that the steel stringed guitar—both the 12 and the six-string models—deserved as important a role in classical music as the concert piano, and he wrote and played extensively in this tradition. In this show, he plays a smattering of pieces from his 1979 disc The Art of the Steel Stringed Guitar 6 and 12—a surpassingly delicate and evocative reimagination of Debussey’s “Claire De Lune,” a magnificent, symphonic rendition of “Cathedrals Et Fleur De Lis”, and beautifully melancholy “The Grail and the Lotus”, which slips American blues and Indian drones into themes from Wagner’s “Parsifal”.
The disc comes packaged with appreciative quotes from followers Jack Rose and James Blackshaw, as well as two longer essays from guitarists Steffen Basho-Junghans (who altered his name in admiration of Basho), Richard Osborn and Glenn Jones (who produced the album, as well). Osborn, in particular, sheds light on Basho’s spiritual side, noting that he once performed Basho’s “The Falconer’s Arm” at a “metaphysical church.” “Later a member of the audience came up and asked ‘Where did you hear that music?’”, Osborn writes. “I replied that I had learned it from Robbie Basho. He then said, ‘Before tonight, I have only ever heard it in the spirit world.’” It’s a strange story, but perfectly in line with the ineffable beauty of Bonn Ist Supreme.