Listen to this track by British folk-jazz super-group that included Bert Jansch, John Renbourne, Jacqui McShee, Danny Thompson, and Terry Cox; Pentangle. It’s “Light Flight” a single from their celebrated 1969 album Basket of Light.
Along with Fairport Convention, The Incredible String Band, and Steeleye Span, Pentangle was a key group in the emerging British folk-rock sound by the end of the 1960s. However, it has been pointed out by critics, fans, and even band members, that jazz had far more to do with their sound than rock ever did.
This idea is certainly evident in this tune, with shifting time signatures being pretty far away from the rock backbeat, and more in line with the polyrhythmic nature of modern jazz. In this song, all of the instruments drive the rhythm, including McShee’s vocals in this folk tale (actually an original by McShee) that served as a single, reaching a modest #43 in the UK charts in 1970, and serving as the theme song for British series Take Three Girls.
But, where jazz chops certainly informed this piece, particularly from Thompson and Cox who came out of that musical stream, one of the more interesting things about it has to do with the nature and structure of the traditional British folk music that inspired the band’s sound in equal measure.
One aspect of ‘folk music’ is that it’s learned not from notation, or through recordings that can be analyzed after the initial performance, but from instruments and voices directly to the ears of audiences, and subsquent participants as the tunes and tales are passed along, sometimes over many years, decades, and centuries. It makes sense then that things like rhythm and meter are going to change as the music is passed along. And further, those meters are going to become irregular as words are added, omitted, or replaced, and as the song evolves otherwise over time as it’s shared from singer to singer.
Songwriter Jacqui McShee was well aware of this tendency in many British folk songs. In “Light Flight”, we’re hearing her take on this approach to rhythm and odd time signatures, with bars in 5/8/ 7/8, and 6/4 time. That modern jazz had also come to embrace these kinds of rhythms by the end of the ’60s, and actually a few years before, and that her bandmates were well-prepared for them musically makes a jazz-folk amalgam on this level more than viable. The irregular rhythm gives the song a kind of excited urgency.
Pentangle guitarist John Renbourne was quoted on this very subject of rhythm in traditional folk music in Ritchie Unterberger’s Eight-Miles High: Folk Rocks Flight From Haigh-Ashbury To Woodstock:
“One of the worst things you can do to a folk song is inflict a rock beat on it. . . Most of the old songs that I have heard have their own internal rhythm. When we worked on those in the group, Terry Cox worked out his percussion patterns to match the patterns in the songs exactly. In that respect he was the opposite of a folk-rock drummer.“
They let the music dictate their playing, and not the other way around. They were the top of their tree as players. But, they were in it to communicate a sound that was true to their traditions. Their playing served this ideal.
The band would reach its height by the early ’70s, before label issues and record sales began to become a problem, and the band disolved. Yet, each member would branch out into solo recordings through out the ensuing years. But, in 2008, after renewed interest in the band became evident, the original quintet reformed and played limited dates, including appearances at the Glastonbury Festival, and the 2008 Green Man Festival,the latter of which they headlined.
They would continue to work together as the original quintet until 2011, when Bert Jansch died of cancer.
For more, check out Pentangle on … Later With Jools Holland on which they played this very tune, almost forty years after they had originally recorded it.