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Cavatina
Artist: John Williams
Label: Salvo
Time: 37 tracks / 127 mins

It is common now for classical artists to appeal to a crossover pop audience. The BBC would be a bit stuck without artists like Katherine Jenkins, Hayley Westenra and Bryn Terfel. Going backwards, Charlotte Church and Aled Jones were early keepers of the thread, but John Williams was one of the pioneers from the days when even wearing an open-necked shirt was a major statement for a classical guitarist to make.

Williams made that statement, shunning the traditional white tie and tails, but his music was making his more dramatic points. This 2-CD digipak brings together for the first time remastered versions of all three recordings from the Fly and Cube labels as he began to popularize classical guitar, which was never inaccessible in the first place.

Each has its character and, predictably, it is the first, 1971’s Changes, that lurches a little as it gropes its way forward down uncharted passageways. It shows hints of pop, jazz and folk alongside the classical, but its two most opposite tracks sit uncomfortably, back-to-back. Both point unmistakably to the late ‘60s, but his superb ambient, drifting and forward-thinking account of “Woodstock” is in stark contrast to the parping, jolly “Good Morning Freedom,” which conjures images of over-exuberant young dancers from the stage of some Saturday evening light entertainment show of the time. Fortunately, this is the only track to stand out for all the wrong reasons.

The release is a collaboration with the Stanley Myers Orchestra. Occasionally their arrangements intrude and date the pieces, but usually they support Williams discreetly. It was Myers that wrote “Cavatina,” the song that has become Williams’ signature tune, and which re-appears later in a previously unreleased version. 

Williams show ambitious range of material here for the time. Having grown up with both Django Reinhardt and Segovia, he is not one for artificial musical boundaries. Connecting with his roots and making a musical statement, the album begins with “Bach Changes” and also includes the less common Lennon/ McCartney song “Because;” Reinhardt’s “Nuages” with Danny Thompson on double bass; and “New Sun Rising,” which cleverly weaves a strand of “House of the Rising Sun” into “A New Day.”

Seven years after the album’s release, “Cavatina” became the theme to The Deer Hunter and gave Williams a UK top twenty single.

In the meantime (1973), he had recorded The Height Below, an album on which he began to play electric guitar as well as Spanish. George Martin produced it, although a fresh interview in the generous liner notes reveals that Williams wishes he sought more guidance from the producer, who “was so incredibly respectful of me as a classical player that he didn’t interfere much during the recording sessions.”

Despite Williams’ regret that the disc was not all that it could have been, it was a more consistent body of work than _Changes_ and is likely to appeal to those who enjoy late Soft Machine, having a similarity with some of John Etheridge’s more melodic work. It had blurry jazz edges, the odd slightly angular piece and, taking up the whole of the original side one, featured the seven-track "Emperor Nero Suite". 

Most of it was written by Williams’ friend, Brian Gascoigne, but those with keen ears may pick out the delightful Irish tune here called “Lisa Lân”, but known elsewhere as “She Moved Through the Fair.” Otherwise, the rest has a light touch of breezy jazz, as you might guess from tracks written by Johnny Dankworth and Dudley Moore.

1978’s Travelling saw a return to collaborating with Myers, only by this time, Williams knew what material worked well and the tracks, mainly sprightly re-workings of Bach such as “Air on the G String,” also included two Myers pieces, one of which reworks “Waltzing Mathilda.”

Most listeners will recognise more tunes than they expect (and possibly more names among the players, with top session men like Rick Wakeman, Chris Spedding, Roy Babbington, Gryphon’s Richard Harvey and, at various points, most of Sky). It was after this that he formed Sky to continue his pop-classical fusion, but that band was too classically-based to really feel the music they made. 

Here though, Williams gets the right blend of head and heart. In an arena where he sets the rules, he rightly disregards the artificial boundaries that divide classical, jazz and pop. Despite his unquestioned talent, he plays guitar for everyman. These tunes are accessible and enjoyable, with just enough interest to please those with more serious taste. While a couple of tracks are mildewed and dated, most are timeless, charged by some inventive interpretations; and with three releases plus bonus tracks in one set, there is enough variety to keep it fresh.

Derek Walker

   
 
 
 

 
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