Yorkston/Thorne/Khan: Everything Sacred

East meets West in Yorkston/Thorne/Khan, a bold and borders-collapsing trio featuring James Yorkston, a singer/songwriter associated with the Scottish folk scene, Suhail Yusuf Khan, a sarangi player and classical singer from New Delhi, and Jon Thorne, a double bass player known for his work with the electronic outfit Lamb. As often happens, some degree of serendipity factored into the group's genesis: a chance backstage meeting between Yorkston and Khan in 2011 led to him joining Yorkston on stage, and the result was so successful the two decided to keep the project going, though now with Thorne, who'd been playing with Yorkston since 2009, added to the mix.

As might be expected from a project involving individuals with such different backgrounds and talents (singer Lisa O'Neill also appears on some tracks), the album's an eclectic and wide-ranging affair that changes shape from one track to the next. Yet while Thorne's jazz-tinged acoustic bass and Yorkston's folk singing and steel guitar obviously are dramatically unlike Khan's sarangi and devotional, Sufi-styled singing, collectively the elements blend effectively, no matter how much it might appear an oil-and-water proposition on paper.

They're certainly an intrepid outfit, as demonstrated by the fearlessness with which the three dig into the opening setting “Knochentanz,” a fourteen-minute exploration that sees Khan's keening sarangi wail grounded by Thorne's sure-footed bass and Yorkston's Eastern drone-flavoured picking. The music rises and falls, at times relaxing into gentle, call-and-response episodes between and at other times building to ecstatic peaks bursting with torrential energy (I can't help but hear traces of Weather Report's “Jungle Book” in the piece due to the similarities between the bass lines in the tracks).

Improvisation is present but so too are songs, among them a beguiling folk chant cover of Ivor Cutler's “Little Black Buzzer” plus an enchanting ballad treatment of Lal Waterson's “Song for Thirza.” There are moments when the album gravitates more to one end of the East-West spectrum before springing back in the other direction: with Yorkston's singing prominently featured, “Broken Wave,” for example, opens in classic folk ballad mode; the game changes, however, when Khan's voice enters halfway through. One might think of Everything Sacred as some bold, genre-transcending fusion of indie folk and Indian classical music that's as easily capable of reminding listeners of Nick Drake as Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. All things considered, the better title might have been Nothing Sacred, given how unselfconsciously the group tears down stylistic borders on this eight-track collection.

February 2016