Regular visitors to the little Salut! empire - and no, I don't just mean the one or two that come to this particular corner of it - know that the pages of all four sites are open to guest writers. Step forward Mike Dennison*, whose first contribution might have seemed more likely to be at Salut! Sunderland. Instead, noticing that no review of Danny Thompson's album Connected has appeared here, despite having been available for some months, he volunteered one of his own. Read on ...
I stumbled upon Danny Thompson talking about Connected on YouTube**. He is a gifted raconteur and I so enjoyed listening to his description of how the album came about that I promptly ordered a copy direct from his online shop, hoping it would live up to expectation.
Danny thought much of the material put out by the record companies following John Martyn‘s untimely death was of questionable merit both in terms of the material presented and the quality of the recordings. This prompted him to assemble and release his own choice of tracks that would reflect his personal highlights from a long and distinguished career. He also hoped to make a few bob from the release while still alive to enjoy it.
Connected has 12 tracks, all featuring collaborations with different artists and covering a wide musical spectrum that includes jazz, blues, folk and rock. In a career that spans seven decades***, a huge number of recording sessions and gigs involving hundreds – if not thousands - of different artists, a single album could never hope to encompass the enormous range of Danny’s activities. Rather than simply pick out the commercial highlights, he chose a set list reflecting the collaborations that have given him the most joy over the years.
The album opens with Hatmosphere, which started off as a piece written by Danny as an introduction to a Richard Thompson song.
Bobby Eichorn asked Danny for permission to use it; Danny acquiesced but demanded an advance - he wanted Bobby to return a hat of his that Bobby had nicked at a gig! Bobby sent the tapes and the hat and Danny added a vocal of him talking about hats, to which Bobby added guitar and other parts. The resulting track is unique and simply superb; Danny’s dynamic bass improvisation combines with his words and Bobby’s guitar to form a anecdote that highlights Danny’s skill as musician and story-teller.
One of Danny’s long-term musical collaborators is Richard Thompson (no relation) and May Day Psalter shows just how good they can be together; it is a convincing illustration of how less can be more. Richard sings his plaintive lyrics and plays a plain, sparse acoustic guitar, barely touching a bass string. Danny somehow turns Victoria (his bass) into an extension of Richard’s guitar making them sound like a single, wonderfully expressive instrument that opens up huge open spaces, turning what could be a bit of an RT dirge into a beautiful meditative piece. All this is accomplished without any special effects or techno-wizardry, just pure musicianship – blissful!
No Love Is Sorrow is an old Pentangle song re-recorded by Danny and the late, lamented Bert Jansch accompanied by orchestra and strings. Bert’s voice – not unlike RT's - can be an acquired taste, sweet but with a rough edge and quite a small range. However he sings this love song with great beauty while Danny finds just the right space between Bert’s guitar and the orchestra. Then he and Bert swap roles in the bridge pushing out the melody whilst Bert puts in some beautiful guitar/slide decorations that enhance the song without overwhelming it. This is musicianship of the highest order, Bert and Danny fitting each other as well as a good pair of gloves.
One Day features yet another guitarist/songwriter/signer – Martin Simpson - singing a song penned by Martin Taylor about his son, who sadly took his own life. Taylor was unable to finish the song, so passed it over to Simpson to complete. Here, it features Simpson on vocals and guitar accompanied by Danny on bass. Martin Simpson does a beautiful job performing with tenderness and sensitivity while maintaining his unique phrasing and dynamics. He plays with a fuller, slightly jazzy feel, but leaves plenty of space. Danny fills out the sound with just enough of a jazz edge – BOING as he puts it – to augment the feel without maudlin descent.
Danny crossed the pond to Nashville to join up with Darrell Scott for Come Into This Room, which Darrell wrote specifically for the session.
The track has a mellow Darrell Scott on vocals with Danny’s bass driving the song along, pretty much as lead instrument. The sound is enhanced by tasteful pedal-steel licks and acoustic guitar fills supplemented with occasional strings. Darrell and Danny obviously share an affinity that comes over strongly.
On first listening to Blood Brother you could easily be fooled into thinking this was from Hejira period Joni Mitchell with Danny doing a great Jaco Pastorius impression. However as soon as the vocals begin, there’s no doubt you’re listening to Tom Robinson. To be honest I’d never been too impressed by Tom Robinson; he’s pleasant enough but not outstanding. On this evidence, he’s matured into a fine performer and the Joni Mitchell vibe really suits him; perhaps I’ll have to revise my opinion.
Back To Where It Started features a Norwegian singer, Anne-Marie Almedal, who was new to me but is rated highly by Danny Thompson. She sings sweetly and clearly on this simple but beautiful track. Danny drives it in his usual tasteful fashion, while a flute played over Anne-Marie’s vocals and an acoustic guitar fills out the sound beneath. Really quite lovely.
Another artist previously unknown to me, Fraser Anderson, contributes Rag And Bones, best described as a slow, intimate love song. His breathy, tender vocals and acoustic guitar are counterpointed by mandola fills. With the unobtrusive The help of Danny’s sympathetic bass, and soft, brush-driven drums, Anderson shows himself to be quite a talent.
All The Pretty Little Horses is a traditional lullaby sung by Barbara Dickson accompanied only by Danny on bass. In such a stripped-down sound, Danny shows just how good an accompanist he is, moving the song along and providing just enough variation to engage the listener’s interest without swamping Barbara Dickson’s warm vocals.
Danny’s most famous collaboration was almost certainly that with John Martyn and Outside In features John Martyn in his Echoplex-driven, alcohol-fuelled pomp; slow spacy lines move into fast echoing runs, soaring and swooping around the sonic spectrum, setting up an amazing echo-driven beat then dropping into intimate vocalised hollers and groans before taking off again. Danny makes his pursuit seem effortlessly, rounding out the sound as only he can. This is superb.
Cold Is To The Bone is a jazzy number penned by Harry Shearer, presumably in between The Simpsons sessions. It is performed by Charlie Wood on piano and vocals, accompanied by Gavin Harrison on drums and Danny on bass, though you would be forgiven for mistaking it for Sting performing one of his own pieces; it could easily have come off Ten Summoner’s Tales and is none the worse for that.
The final track, Connected, provides not only the album but its theme and finale. It features Eric Bibb in a highly personal and intimate piece expressing his own relationship to the world. Bibb plays an acoustic guitar melody as Danny works his magic on bass, completing the sound with just enough variation to reflect and echo the beautiful simplicity of the tune, producing a quiet masterpiece.
Whether you are a Danny Thompson fan or have never heard of him, this album ought to make a great addition to any personal playlist. It is sometimes said that you can judge the quality of a musician not so much on how well they play, but how well they allow others to play with them. If that is true, Danny is up there with the best of them.
* Mike Dennison: is a suffering Sunderland supporter living in the Scottish Borders where he tries to make living writing e-commerce web sites. When he not listening to music, programming or getting depressed about football, he can often be found zooming around the Scottish and Northumbrian countryside on a 20-year-old Honda Pan European motorbike. He takes ridiculously pleasure in his Captain Beefheart ringtone.
** And here's the clip Mike talked about ...
*** Danny Thompson, now 74, was born in Devon and brought up in Battersea but his family roots are in the North East. He told Salut's Colin Randall a few years ago that his father, a miner who joined the Royal Navy and was lost in action in the Second World War, was a Sunderland supporter, which would have cheered Mike Dennison as it did Colin. Sadly, he grew up as a Chelsea fan and even had junior-level experience with the club. His musical career began in the 1950s with skiffle, establishing the accuracy of Mike's note that it stretches to seven decades. His website is at http://www.therealdannythompson.co.uk/