The description of Ryan Francesconi as an American guitarist, for so many reasons, just doesn’t do him justice. Indeed, his voracious musical appetite will have made itself known to many via his arrangement work on Joanna Newsom’s three course blowout Have One On Me, a rich stew of folk, pop, country, rock, gospel, classical and even more exotic ingredients. Even without that level of ornamentation, and reduced just to a six string guitar, he is capable of covering more ground than most. For crucially, Francesconi is a guitarist whose main influences aren’t other guitarists; untangle his strings and you’ll find they are joined to the Bulgarian tambur, the Greek bouzouki, the West African kora, the baroque lute or, indeed, the harp.
Given this knot of global linkages, it made perfect sense then the support act for this performance at London’s Vortex jazz club was a kora player, the Senegalese griot Kadialy Kouyate. Kouyate performed a mixture of interpretations of traditional Mandinka songs with his own compositions. A lot was packed into these pieces, and I’m not just talking about the relentless tumble of notes emerging from that twenty-one stringed instrument: a title such as “Fondinke” unfurled into its lengthy English translation, “the rivalry that exists between two people from the same father”, while a later one-word title meant “the feeling of liking the way that someone behaves”. Even without an understanding of the language, his deep voice made these feel like rich stories handed down from griot to griot, from Kouyate to Kouyate. One of his own compositions paid tribute to that other great kora-playing line, the Diabates, Kouyate’s playing recalling that of the great Toumani, building from gentle introduction to faster runs and complex instrumental trills. There are few more impressive sounds in music than that of a kora player in full flight, which must be pretty daunting if you have to follow one.
Francesconi certainly didn’t set out at Kouyate’s pace. He opened with the slow, pulsing “Parallel Lights”, taken quietly, head craning to the guitar’s neck to hear the notes, and it was immediately clear that there was a precision about his work which sets him apart from the faster and more fluid improvising guitarists of the post-Takoma scene. The title of the recent album that piece is taken from gives that fact away: these are parables, short, illuminating stories, carefully crafted, and expertly read, each word given due emphasis, and left to hang in the air. A piece called “Elder Brother” could easily have slotted into the set of either of tonight’s performers. As could, for musical reasons, the rolling, repeating phrases of the title track “Parables”, the most unmistakably kora-influenced of the set. Amongst his own compositions, Francesconi scattered some interpretations of Greek, Turkish and Bulgarian folk music, the last -mentioned of these being an arrangement of an a capella piece he’d heard performed by some women in that country. This is the sort of thinking that lends Francesconi’s music a weight out of proportion with its sparse, airy construction. In the vast spaces between notes, there are whole worlds.