Pink Floyd, Yes, Jethro Tull… it wasn’t just progressive rock groups that did concept albums in the ’70s. Acoustic folk guitarist and singer/songwriter Bert Jansch closed that decade with a concept album of his own. An anomaly in his own catalog as well, Avocet is an all instrumental album about birds. While that sounds very New Age, the liner notes by Jansch biographer Colin Harper remind us that “this was no easy listening album, but it was eminently listenable.”
Earth Recordings has reissued Avocet in a lavish repackaging (the special edition includes lithographs by Hannah Price, who also illustrated the new cover) including short informational sketches on the birds the tracks are titled after, and the essay by Harper. Not only is the packaging upgraded, but so is the music, which has been remastered, revealing more light and shadow in these intricate pieces performed by Jansch, violinist/mandocellist/flautist Martin Jenkins, and bassist Danny Thompson.
Jansch had a soft spot for birds, hence the focus of this album on British water birds. He released a benefit single (“Black Birds of Brittany”) for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds around this time as well. Each track on Avocet attempts to capture the spirit of its namesake bird, and there’s the feeling of flight and the oft-mysteriousness of nature present in the music.
The title song, an 18-minute excursion, covers a lot of territory, and was a track Jansch had been developing for some time before committing it to wax. Taking melodic inspiration from the traditional “The Cuckoo” (itself a bird song), it moves through adventurous peaks and valleys and is a milestone in his long career.
Though Jansch primary plays acoustic guitar on Avocet, he plays solo piano on the relatively short “Lapwing” and employs a shimmery psychedelic electric guitar on “Bittern”, which also features a bass solo from Thompson. All the songs on Avocet, for that matter, are as strongly colored by Jenkins’ and Thompson’s playing as much as Jansch’s. Jansch had performed with Thompson for years in Pentangle, and the two had been touring, along with Jenkins, in the time immediately preceding Avocet’s recording. This familiarity creates a natural interplay and feel between the three musicians which would have been hard to duplicate had they not known each other’s styles so well.
Jenkins’ contributions to the overall sound are so integral, in fact, that when the album first came out (in Denmark) it was credited to both Jansch and Jenkins on the cover. He shines particularly bright on “Kingfisher”, carrying the soaring melody over Jansch’s John Martyn-esque (in this song, at least) rhythmic guitar backing. Jenkins would stay with Jansch for the following album, Thirteen Down, but, unfortunately, their recording paths didn’t cross again after that. He died in 2011, only a few months before Jansch.
Avocet was favorably received upon release and has since become a fan favorite. To say its representative of Jansch’s other work would be missing the mark, but not because of a comparative lack of quality. But because it’s so individual and unique. It would not be an overstatement to say it’s one of the most successfully ambitious and enjoyable concept albums of the last few decades.