Pentangle - Biography
By J Poet
Pentangle, the (only?) first jazz/folk band, is unique in the world of British and American popular music. Although wildly successful, they never strayed from their roots in the music of the British Isles and maintained their unique sound, even when group members launched flourishing solo careers. Their repertoire was balanced between traditional music and their own brilliant compositions with each member bringing incredible musicality to the band. Bert Jansch and John Renbourn were master guitarists with a deep background in British and American folk, blues, jazz, medieval and classical music, along with various Arab and Eastern musical styles. Vocalist Jacqui McShee cut her teeth at folk and jazz clubs, and was a quintessential 60s mod/hippie beauty. Danny Thompson’s inventive bass lines were always amazing and Terry Cox was the most original drummer in any folk band, adjusting his playing to the rhythms or the songs, rather than forcing them in the 4/4 rock straightjacket. Throughout their many incarnations they maintained a quality of musicianship and sense of style most bands only dream of. In 2007 the band received a Lifetime Achievement Award from BBC’s Radio 2 and announced a reunion tour to run through most of 2008.
Bert Jansch was born in Scotland and as already a fine guitarist before he hitched down to London to make it. His first solo album Bert Jansch (1965 Transatlantic) made major ripples in the still small folk music pond. Shortly thereafter he met John Renbourn. They became flat mates and started writing together, both instrumental pieces and songs. Bert and John
(1966 Transatlantic), a duo album, introduced the so-called Folk Baroque picking that would soon make Pentangle unique. Jansch and Renbourn started a residency with McShee at a club called Cousins. Renbourn already knew Thompson and Cox and got them to sit in.
Danny Thompson was born in Teignmouth, Devon and played soccer and boxed in grammar school. He started playing brass instruments, but when he picked up a bass, and the music of Big Bill Broonzy, that was it. He left home at 15, rented a room, and practiced electric bass ten hours of more every day. Soon there after he bought the upright bass he still uses, “Victoria,” for five pounds from an old musician. (Victoria was made by the French instrument maker Gand in 1865; last time she was valued she was worth £30,000.) At 16 he was touring US Air Force bases in a big Glenn Miller style band when he was drafted. After the service he joined Hawkwind briefly as a drummer, then got a gig in Roy Orbison’s European touring band that lasted three years. In 1964 replaced Jack Bruce in Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated, while spending his spare time playing for Little Walter, Josh White, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, and John Lee Hooker. He also paled in dozens of small jazz combos. When the Korner band got a regular TV gig, he met John Renbourn who was also on the program, backing up the American singer Dorris Henderson. He started playing with Renbourn, and Jansch at Three Horseshoes, a local folk club. Eventually Jacquie McShee and Terry Cox joined in and Pentangle was born.
McShee was a well-known folk singer before Pentangle and hired Renbourn for her own combo before she started singing with the duo of Jansch and Renbourn. She contributed vocals to an early Renbourn project Another Monday (1967 Transatlantic.) Cox was a jazz drummer before joining Korner’s Blues Incorporated where he hooked up with Thompson. The jams at Three Horseshoes started getting attention and Jansch convinced his label, Transatlantic, to sign Pentangle, although they were less than enthusiastic. Their first two albums The Pentangle (1968 Transatlantic, 1968 Reprise US) and Sweet Child (1968 Transatlantic, 1968 Reprise US), a double LP with live and studio recordings, were immediate sensations, praised for the expert guitar work of Jansch and Renbourn, McShee’s languid vocal style, and the remarkable rhythms of Cox and Thompson. The combination of jazz, folk and early music had critics scrambling to come up with labels. Folk baroque and folk jazz were two of the better tags, but they had really created something all their own that drew on all those styles. Warner picked up the Pentangle albums for the US and the band played the Newport Folk Festival, headlined Carnegie Hall and opened shows at The Fillmore for The Grateful Dead who dubbed them The Grateful Dead of Folk. Basket of Light (1969 Transatlantic, 2006 Sanctuary) hit the Top 5 in Britain and was the band’s commercial peak. They followed it with Cruel Sister (1970 Transatlantic, 1970 Reprise) on which Jansch broke out an electric guitar or the first time, Reflection (1971 Transatlantic, 1971 Reprise) which included some funk and American country music in the mix, and Solomon’s Seal (1972 Reprise) a bluesy outing with more electric guitar work from Jansch and Renbourn. After that, the band members threw in the towel.
In 1982, with Jansch and Renbourn well established as solo artists, the band reformed, temporarily without Cox who had broken his leg. In 1984 Renbourn left to go back to school and study classical music composition and orchestration. The band went back to the studio without Renbourn for Open The Door (1985 Varrick,) after which there was a major personnel reshuffling. Thompson left and Mike Piggot, Nigel Portman Smith, Peter Kirtley, and Gerry Conway joined up. This line up cut In the Round (2007 Sanctuary,) So Early in the Spring (1990 Green Linnet), Think of Tomorrow (1991 Green Linnet), which was a bit more electric and pop than previous efforts. One More Road and Live 1994 were packaged together by Hux Records in 2007.
Jansch left the band again in 1995 and McShee renamed the band Jacqui McShee’s Pentangle. She started her own label for the band, GJS Records, and cut About Thyme (1995 GJS) with guests Ralph McTell, Albert Lee, and John Martyn. They followed it with Passe Avant (1999 Park), Feoffees’ Lands (2005 GJS) and a live set At the Little Theater (2001 Park.) Jerry Underwood died in 2002 and was replaced by Gary Foote. They continued playing live dates until McShee rejoined the original band for their 2008 reunion tour.