Fourteen years ago, Bruce Cockburn released a fantastic instrumental album called Speechless. This fall he released another one, and it is worth the 14-year wait. (There were three other records during that span, but Crowing Ignites is the first instrumental release since Speechless.) Let us begin with a proverbial dusting off of Speechless, before venturing into the new material.
Bruce Cockburn – Speechless
(True North Records, 2005)
If I Had a Rocket Launcher. Wondering Where the Lions Are. Lovers in a Dangerous Time. Canadian music legend Bruce Cockburn is known primarily as a singer-songwriter and music activist, but for many serious fans it is his exceptional talent as an acoustic fingerstyle guitarist that is most impressive. After releasing 27 albums Cockburn decided to put the focus squarely on his guitar playing. Speechless features career-spanning highlights from his previous recordings, with three new compositions and one Japan-only release.
It is impossible to overestimate Cockburn’s influence on the guitar, with respected players including Don Ross, Kurt Swinghammer, Martin Tielli and Michael Occhipinti all citing Cockburn as a major inspiration. He is an Officer of the Order of Canada and is inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame. Acoustic Guitar Magazine named Cockburn’s 1979 album Dancing In The Lion’s Jaws one of the “essential recordings,” which put him in the company of Andres Segovia, Bill Frisell, Django Reinhardt and Mississippi John Hurt
The album is a collection of highlights, including the timeless Sunwheel Dance and the guitar-teacher favourite, Foxglove (which has challenged generations of guitar students with an alternating bass and a series of tricky triplets). The breadth of Cockburn’s style is traversed in the cinematic soundscapes of the haunting Islands In A Black Sky and the shimmering Water Into Wine. The country-blues side shines through on numbers like Sunrise On The Mississippi. Jazz influences are evident on Rouler Sa Bosse and Rise And Fall. Mistress of Storms features a thrilling duet with Gary Burton on vibes.
New compositions for this collection include the meditative Elegy (played on the dobro) and the swirling End Of All Rivers, which features a tasteful use of delay to create rich harmonies and counterpoints. The bluesy King Kong Goes To Tallahassee is a swampy, southern-flavoured gem.
Speechless is a timeless and breathtaking collection of guitar music by one of the world’s greatest players, and one of Canada’s icons. It is an essential album for all guitarists, musicians and Canadians.
Bruce Cockburn – Crowing Ignites
(True North Records, 2019)
For the purists and guitar geeks, there are three tracks that feature only solo acoustic guitar.
Easter is melodic and reflective, composed on Easter Sunday 2018. Sweetness and Light is described by Cockburn as “a gift… there was nothing else to call this.” Angels in the Half Light apparently came to him “in a dream.” There is a sense of darkness and light in conflict here.
April in Memphis includes haunting chimes and was composed on Martin Luther King Day 2019.
Longtime friend and collaborator Colin Linden produced this record and plays baritone guitar on a piece titled Seven Daggers – named after a statue of Our Lady of Seven Sorrows. Seven Daggers is a rich soundscape of kalimba, dulcimer, chimes, bells and various other percussion along with Cockburn on 12-string guitar.
Linden also plays mandolin on The Groan, written for a Les Stroud documentary called La Loche. Although not used in the film, the song survives here. Linden is a man of many talents and his dobro playing is rich and swampy on Blind Willie (named for Blind Willie McTell).
Bardo Rush opens the album with a percolating fingerstyle pulse, augmented by shakers and keyboards.
Pibroch: The Wind in the Valley is inspired by “trance-like classical bagpipe music of Scotland.” With a droning bass string, the melody dances around with life and purpose.
The Mt Lefroy Waltz is the only track with a full band, and it jumps out among the rest of the songs as a jazz composition, and for Cockburn’s nimble, linear playing on an electric guitar. Ron Miles (cornet) adds a colour that harkens back to Giftbearer (In the Falling Dark, 1971). Roberto Occhipinti (bass) and Gary Craig (drums) give the song colour, texture and a pulse. I would love to hear a full album with this quartet.
Bells of Gethsemane closes the album with more compelling percussion, including singing bowls, Tibetan cymbals, gong, and chimes. Cockburn plays baritone guitar on this seven-minute soundscape.
Crowing Ignites will definitely spark your interest and deserves repeated listening with good headphones. This album is a sonic journey.