Guitarist-singer Bert Jansch started his career in the 1960s folk vanguard, influencing peers as stylistically far-flung as Nick Drake, Jimmy Page, and Paul Simon with his deft fretwork, and later defining the pastoral, balladic sound of '70s British folk-rock as part of the group Pentangle. While the subsequent years weren't as kind to him personally—Jansch survived alcoholism, heart surgery, and the dissolution of Pentangle and his subsequent band, Conundrum—his influence held strong as new generations of musicians attempted to get their heads around his work.
Fittingly, Jansch's latest album, The Black Swan, finds the 63-year-old guitarist inviting many of those same acolytes to record alongside him. Guests such as "freak folk" avatars Devendra Banhart, Otto Hauser (Espers, Vetiver), Helena Espvall (Espers), Kevin Barker (Aden, Currituck Co.), and dream-pop chanteuse Beth Orton all hold their own in the master's presence, and the result is the most vitally "now"—and yet strangely timeless—work Jansch has produced this decade.
Though it's thinned with age, Jansch's voice has a warm, wizened tone that suits The Black Swan's introspective, emotionally naked material: He's plaintive in the stark, cello-accented title track, playful amid the acoustic-guitar fireworks of "Hey Pretty Girl," and bitter in the rollicking political-protest tune "Texas Cowboy Blues." Even when he hands the mic to Orton or Banhart, as on the swinging blues "When The Sun Comes Up" and the traditional "Katie Cruel" and "Watch The Stars," neither of the guests outshines the leader—which, for those coming to The Black Swan specifically for those guests, may be a letdown. If not, dive in and enjoy, because the effect is as weird, wonderful, and transcendent as hearing Pentangle and its modern-day companions at the same time.