Colin Wilkie & Shirley Hart :: Wild Goose

Against the backdrop of bucolic sixties folk album artwork (see: man standing against pastoral backdrop, close-up portrait, artist walking down a path, maybe there’s a stone wall), Tilman Machalski’s melting psychedelic geese in flight over a triptych of rainbows has every ingredient of ‘please examine this record closely.’ After a while, one might even notice some musicians’ caricatures in the clouds. Exemplary work from the Kinderbuch illustrator immediately commands an interest in the contents of the album bearing the names of UK folk duo Colin Wilkie and Shirley Hart. Upon closer inspection, the cast of supporting musicians makes clear that we haven’t come across the average folk record. Trombonist Albert Mangelsdorff (frequent collaborator with German saxophone overlord Peter Brotzmann) leads the Jazzensemble des Hessischens Rundfunks: Ralf Hübner- drums; Joki Freund- tenor sax; Emil Mangelsdorff- alto sax, flute; Günter Lenz- Bass; Heinz Sauer (maybe the most German name ever)- alto sax. Of course, this is no typical folk effort. Presented is the early folk-jazz synthesis, Wild Goose.

To be blunt, Wild Goose won’t be for everyone. Folk-jazz crossovers are a tough sell. Even tougher to execute. Especially in a way that doesn’t come across as forced or corny. And there is little to no nuance between the British folk stylings of Wilkie and Hart, and the post-bop, nearing Free Jazz blowouts of the musicians joining them. Both are enveloped in their own distinct environments, and the blending of the two styles can be a bit of a shock—even leaning toward jarring. This stands removed from the jazz-inflected songwriting (though not truly a folk-jazz fusion) of Tim Buckley or Fred Neil. But it should be kept in mind that this is a novel attempt at a hard merger. Mike Cooper’s seamless execution on Trout Steel was still a year off, and there isn’t much recorded output from the period in the same musical region as the efforts executed on Wild Goose.

Opener “Icy Acres” kicks off the live set in a standard folk mode. Animated acoustic guitar propels the spirited whaling song about those frigid waters off Greenland’s coast. Wilkie and Hart would have likely performed in this manner at Les Cousins or any number of the West German venues the couple frequented. Wilkie’s voice is strong and Hart balances out the harmonies perfectly. The cymbals begin to chime in. Something is happening. The double bass player springs around the neck of his instrument, filling in any space not filled by acoustic guitar and now-full drum kit. Out of nowhere, Joki Freund unleashes a blistering refrain of the theme just belted out by the vocal duo. Mangelsdorff joins with muted trombone accents. The remainder of the ensemble joins, and any hint of guitar is totally washed away. The group reconstructs the tune layer by layer, shifting their lines ever so slightly to take the piece into a bizarre free-bop territory. Devolved and totally full of fire. The group replicates techniques developed by Sun Ra for his own compositions. Or Albert Ayler breaking down a New Orleans funeral march to its base form, heaving the theme to the forefront and and building it anew in his own hyper-focused vision. And sure enough, the Germans pull it off. It lacks the innate groove and swagger of the prior musicians, but through that oh-so-studious European manner of imitator-cum-groundbreaker, it absolutely works. The group gives a flawless presentation of barren (in the best way) Northern European free improvisation (so often associated with ECM, FMP, or Incus) for several minutes; continuing to re-layer the song in such a way that it becomes unrecognizable. The blowout lessens to a simmer as the reeds gradually fade out. A guitar, audible once more, picks up the slack. Without missing a beat, Wilkie commits to the final verse as Gunter Lenz’s double bass dances along. 

While the sea shanty/bard-on-a-hill vibe is prominent throughout the entire record, there is one instrumental opportunity for the Hessischens ensemble to shine. “Ich Armes Maidlein Klag Mich Sehr” is a vamping tune propelled by a nimble staccato bassline. The ensemble’s heavily coordinated phrases draw to mind Gil Evans, while the rhythm section leans toward Pharoah Sanders’s groups of the time (especially when individual players step up to solo). The cut also showcases the real binding that holds the entire project together: Lenz’s stellar bass playing. Every time the record shines, he’s there. The high moments on some of the weaker tunes come from his solid grounding. If anything, Wild Goose is worth its weight in lessons on adaptability and stability for double bass. Anytime there’s a risk of it going off the rails, Guenter brings it all back together.

Much of the album follows the structure established on “Icy Acres.” A folky bit. A jump to the jazz chops of Mangelsdorff’s group. Folk refrain. As previously mentioned, it can induce some whiplash and keep the listener wondering if they’re hearing two separate albums oddly cut and pasted together. Two cuts however, stand above the rest—likely the realization of the goal the group set out to tackle. “Fourth Flight” – a dirge that provides the album its title – and side two opener, “Willow and Rue,” seamlessly combine the jazz and folk aspects in perfect continuity. Whereas the rest of the record seems to break the songs into suites of sort, these two pull off the synthesis that was intended to take place. The band fills out the traditional songs perfectly. There are still breaks for solos, but this only further cements the union. The jazz players are not simply adjusting their accustomed mode of playing to live within the confines of a folk medium, but the group as a whole is adjusting the functionality of folksong to include the usually absent virtuoso. The solos aren’t overblown (though they’re certainly not stagnant or boring), but rather thoughtful punctuation on the hardship, nostalgia, woe, and communal belonging conveyed in the traditional tunes of the British Isles. The radical individuality of every performer involved is brought to the forefront, constituting an organic communion of disparate influence and output. Truly transcendent, solemn, and exceptionally refined in its understatement, it is with these tracks that Wild Goose provides the listener a glimpse into how fruitful this unorthodox union may be.

Other artists would go on to master this this particular form of folk-jazz and make their legacy doing so. It’s a shame that Wilkie and Hart didn’t revisit this territory because while, imperfect, Wild Goose remains an ambitious and visionary album fifty years later. Anyone who appreciates damn good musicians working their asses off in the face of a big risk are sure to be rewarded for tracking down this exceptional oddity. | j rooney

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