The second Yorkston/Thorne/Khan album, released by Domino on April 7th, represents a confluence of currents, among them the north Indian sarangi; jazz-tinged bass, reminiscent in places of Danny Thompson; acoustic guitar that owes a debt to Elizabeth Cotton, Dick Gaughan and Mississippi John Hurt; and three very different vocalists. The combination is unusual: YTK’s Everything Sacred>, released in 2016, may be the only precedent. Yet while, on paper, the constituent elements might seem disparate, the new album is, if anything, even more coherent than its predecessor. It also basks in a truly magnificent title: Neuk Wight Delhi All-Stars. Just don’t call it fusion.
‘The last Yorkston/Thorne/Khan album was seen by some as fusion,’ says James Yorkston, ‘and I can see that. There are elements of jazz and Indian classical tradition coming together with acoustic song. But the word fusion suggests forethought, an attempt to combine the most disparate elements possible, and YTK wasn’t like that. Suhail and I met purely by chance and became friends. We’re pals. I just see it as a band.’
YTK also doesn’t qualify as fusion, laughs Yorkston, because he’s not that kind of guitarist. ‘Fusion implies polite, well played. Suhail and Jon are virtuosos, but what I do is not always pretty. I bring more of a punk energy. It’s like that Leonard Cohen quote about the cracks that let the light in.’ This is, he laughs, a pretty cracked album.
YTK released their first album, Everything Sacred, in 2016, but they are hardly lacking in experience. Yorkston’s 2002 debut was named Rough Trade’s album of the year and he has gone on to work with everyone from Kieran Hebden (aka Four Tet) and Hot Chip’s Alexis Taylor to Martin Carthy and Bert Jansch. He has also released a total of seven acclaimed solo albums for Domino alongside many other Fence Records releases. There’s also been a book of tour diaries and, in 2016, the novel Three Craws. The bassist and composer Jon Thorne, who came to prominence with Lamb, has also worked with Iron And Wine, Robert Fripp, Donovon, Sam Lee, Vashti Bunyan and Green Gartside. He and Yorkson have been playing together since 2009. YTK took root when Yorkston met Suhail Yusuf Khan, the award-winning sarangi player and singer from New Delhi, backstage at a gig in Edinburgh. Khan is part of several groups including Advaita, an eight-piece Indian band recorded by John Leckie. His grandfather, Ustad Sabri Khan, played with George Harrison, Pandit Ravi Shankar and Yehudi Menuhin.
Together, they walk on untrodden ground.
‘The combination of a singer-songwriter, a jazz bassist and an Indian classical sarangi player is totally unheard off,’ says Khan. ‘For me, the lack of percussion, especially, gives me the freedom to do loads more sonically. I can be minimalistic and more extravagant at the same time. YTK is also different to anything else I’m involved in because I am constantly responding to the musical energies of James and Jon, trying to absorb the influences they bring to the table and react to that. It’s a process of sharing and learning.’
‘I see YTK as an extension of the musical relationship James and I have already established,’ agrees Thorne, ‘but made unique by blending it with Suhail’s Indian sounds. It’s my first experience playing with saranghi and Indian classical singing. Best of all, this is the first time, to my knowledge, that this combination of instruments has ever been recorded. It’s very exciting.’
What the three musicians share is a love of improvisation:
‘I was in bands in my 20s,’ says Yorkston, ‘and I remember one band that played the same set night after night. That killed it for me. What I like in my own shows is the freedom to go off-piste a little bit. I love that element of improvisation, and of course it’s there in Indian classical music as well as in jazz.’
The trio have continued this semi-improvised approach in the studio, with most tracks recorded live, some with very little rehearsal.
‘I’ve known the Anne Briggs version of Recruited Collier for years,’ says Yorkston, ‘and I sang it live a while ago. When we tried it in the studio, Suhail added this singing, which I really wasn’t expecting. It just gives this adrenaline boost.’
False True Piya, similarly, mingles traditions: from Britain, via the Appalachian Mountains, and from India.
‘Piya is a word in the Hindi language, meaning beloved,’ explains Khan. ‘The Hindi lyrics of the song were composed and written by me. They talk about a lover who is longing for a beloved, devastated by pain. A point comes when the lover starts hallucinating that the beloved has arrived and starts having conversations with this hallucination. There is a strange feeling of dark happiness: the beloved is there, but only as a hallucination.’
‘When Suhail explained the Hindi lyric to me,’ Yorkston continues, it reminded me of the great old song The Daemon Lover, also known as The House Carpenter, so I sang a fragment of Annie Watson’s version to introduce the piece.’
All three members contribute vocals to Neuk Wight Delhi All-Stars. Tracks sung by Yorkston include Bales and The Blues You Sang; those sung by Khan include Jaldhar Kedara (Wedding Song), an old Indian piece he picked up from his grandfather. Thorne, finally, sings his own One More Day, Yorkston’s The Blue of the Thistle and the Ted Sheldrake number Just A Bloke.
‘One More Day was a song I wrote during the session,’ says Jon. ‘I actually only finished writing it on the last day. I wrote it as a love letter to my wife and family. I get homesick on the road and wanted a song about homecoming to sing every night next time we tour to ease it.’
There’s a real sense, in all these pieces, that Neuk Wight Delhi All-Stars represents a step on from Everything Sacred.
‘You can hear a greater unity in our sound from having played together for a year,’ says Thorne. ‘The first album came very quickly after we got together and we were finding our way more at that point. Also, James has pushed me far out of my comfort zone this time, making me sing on a couple of numbers.’
‘This record is more together in comparison to the previous one,’ agrees Khan, ‘though I’m not saying the last one wasn’t together. We’ve understood each other’s personalities and musicalities slightly more. The songs sound a bit tighter, though they have the same rawness as the last one. In one line, I’d say we’ve almost cracked the YTK sound on the new record.’
That sound sits more or less at the edge of song form. ‘Chori Chori is an example of how elastic the process can be,’ says Yorkston. ‘There is a basic structure there but we had no idea how long the bit in the middle would be.’ Halleluwah, meanwhile, was an improvised jam, based around a D minor drone. It is named after the Can song, just as Everything Sacred featured Knochentanz, named after the Faust composition.
Neuk Wight Delhi All-Stars does not only bring together Indian classical music and jazz, then, but kosmische too; Yorkston also cites dub reggae, Uilleann pipes and the Madagascan guitarist D’Gary as influences. That breadth, says Thorne, is critical: ‘I think YTK is a fine example of how music operates without boundaries as a common international language and a source of cross-cultural unity. It’s an important message in the times that we live in.’
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