Richard Osborn: Endless
Tompkins Square

Richard Osborn's backstory is almost as interesting as his first widely available solo guitar album, Endless. After seeing John Fahey play in 1965, Osborn began imitating his style until a 1968 encounter with Robbie Basho led to a stint of raga-influenced study that impressed the teacher so much, he declared Osborn to be “better technically than me or Fahey.” Osborn's development was severely curtailed by two separate accidents that left him with a severed nerve at the base of his left thumb and later a tendon in his left index finger, injuries that prevented him from playing for fifteen years. In 1995, he resumed playing, but now with a classical guitar, whose lower string tension made it easier for him to play than a steel string acoustic, and eventually surfaced on Tompkins Square's 2010 compilation Beyond Berkeley Guitar before self-releasing two years later his own solo debut, the improvisational set Giving Voice: Guitar Explorations, and 2015's Freehand.

Endless offers a fine portrait of the so-called American Primitive Guitarist at work, and one especially satisfying for the variety of material it presents. Naturally, there are generous samplings of the East-meets-West “free raga style” pioneered by Basho, but forays into the American and English folk traditions appear, too. A range of different guitars also adds to the recording's rich soundworld, with Osborn playing a 1915 Vincenzo DeLucia parlor guitar (his axe of choice for ragas), National Resophonic NRP-14, Tony Yamamoto 12-string, and Alan Perlman cutaway classical guitar. In keeping with an album that sounds like it conceivably could have been released on vinyl thirty years ago as much as today, its seven pieces align themselves into two groupings, with tabla player Barry Phillips joining Osborn on the final three pieces.

“In a Monastery Garden” sets the tone with an inner exploration conducive to reflection, with Osborn expertly adjusting the tempo as he undertakes a heartfelt search using arpeggios, melodic lines, and strums. Sunnier by comparison is his rendering of “Streets of Laredo, A Pastorale,” whose singing melodies are elegantly clothed in a lilting treatment that deftly bridges folk and classical realms; familiar the tune might be, but it's endearing nonetheless. With Osborn on Yamamoto 12-string, “Still I Will Be Merry” presents one of the album's richest tapestries, especially when the guitarist executes the early English tune's classical folk arrangement with such delicacy and genuine feeling. “Breton Fisherman's Prayer” parts company with the generally refined character of the opening pieces by adding Osborn's plaintive voice to the arrangement. Though technically it might be considered raw, his voicing of the fisherman's plea proves affecting for being so heartfelt (“Protect me on board, protect me on board / Your sea is so vast and my boat is so small”).

In contrast to the more formally structured settings making up the recording's first half, the second's raga-styled pieces allows for a greater amount of freeform improvisation, though the three aren't so freeform that a clear sense of compositional form eludes them. Phillips' tabla provides a non-intrusive yet nevertheless gently prodding support to Osborn's relaxed playing on the first and shortest of the three, “The King Walks By”; the eleven-minute setting that follows, “Your Eyes,” pursues an even more peaceful approach in advancing gradually from a quiet introductory section featuring drone-accompanied guitar to a comparatively animated exploration with tabla added to the fold, after which “The Open Road” caps the album with a glorious sampling of Osborn's rapturous guitar work. There's a humble conviction to his playing on the ragas in particular that lends this stellar collection a subtly reverential and even serene quality.

February 2017