Feature

Bruce Cockburn is releasing a new instrumental album this fall

Photo by Daniel Keebler.

True North Records has announced a Sept. 20 world-wide release date for Crowing Ignites, the new all-instrumental CD from legendary Canadian singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn. Bruce has also announced his North American tour (dates below) with more shows to be confirmed.

 Crowing Ignites was produced, recorded and mixed by Colin Linden, and recorded at the Firehouse in San Francisco. It showcases 11 all-original compositions by Bruce, who plays acoustic guitar throughout, backed by a stellar cast of sympathetic musicians.

 In 2005, Bruce released Speechless, a collection of instrumental tracks that shone the spotlight on the singer-songwriter’s exceptional acoustic guitar playing. The album earned a Canadian Folk Music Award for Best Instrumentalist and underscored his stature as one of the world’s premier pickers.

 Already, The New York Times had credited Bruce with having “the hardest-working right thumb in show business,” adding that he “materializes chords and modal filigrees while his thumb provides the music’s pulse and its foundation—at once a deep Celtic drone and the throb of a vigilant conscience.” Acoustic Guitar magazine was similarly laudatory in citing Bruce’s guitar prowess, placing him in the prestigious company of legends like Andrés Segovia, Bill Frisell, Django Reinhardt and Mississippi John Hurt.

Now, with the intriguingly titled Crowing Ignites, Bruce has released another dazzling instrumental album that will further cement his reputation as both an exceptional composer and a picker with few peers. Unlike Speechless, which included mostly previously-recorded tracks, the latest album—Bruce’s 34thfeatures brand new compositions. Although there’s not a single word spoken or sung, it’s as eloquent and expressive as any of the Canadian Hall of Famer’s lyric-laden albums. As his long-time producer, Colin, puts it, “It’s amazing how much Bruce can say without saying anything.”

The album’s title is a literal translation of the Latin motto Accendit Cantu, featured on the Cockburn family crest. Although a little puzzling, Bruce liked the feeling it conveyed: “Energetic, blunt, Scottish as can be.” The album’s other nod to his Scottish heritage is heard on “Pibroch: The Wind in the Valley,” in which his guitar’s droning bass strings and melodic grace notes sound eerily like a Highland bagpipe. “I’ve always loved pibroch, or classic bagpipe music,” Bruce said. “It seems to be in my blood. Makes me want to sip whiskey out of a sea shell on some rocky headland!”

While Bruce’s reconnecting with his Gaelic roots is one of Crowing Ignites more surprising elements, there’s plenty else that will delight followers of his adventurous pursuits. Said Colin, who’s been a fan of Bruce’s for 49 years and has produced 10 of his albums and played on the two before that: “Bruce is always trying new things, and I continue to be fascinated by where he goes musically.”

The album is rich in styles from folk and blues to jazz, all genres Bruce has previously explored. But there are also deepening excursions into what might be called free-form world music. The hypnotic, kalimba-laden “Seven Daggers” and the trance-inducing “Bells of Gethsemane,” full of Tibetan cymbals, chimes and singing bowls, are highly atmospheric dreamscapes that showcase Bruce’s world of wonders—and his improvisational gifts on both 12-string and baritone guitars. Each track was wholly created in the makeshift studio he and Colin put together in a converted fire station in Bruce’s San Francisco neighborhood.

Singing bowls, Bruce explained, are an endless source of fascination to him, dating back to a trip he took to Kathmandu, as seen in the documentary Return to Nepal. There, Bruce stumbled on a man selling the small inverted bells sometimes used in Buddhist religious practices and became instantly captivated by their vibrational power.

I had no particular attraction to them as meditation tools or anything,”he said. “I just thought they had a beautiful sound. After buying half a dozen in Kathmandu, and having bought more since, he now has a sizeable collection.

Two tracks on Crowing Ignites had their origins elsewhere. “The Groan,” a bluesy piece with guitar, mandolin and some collective handclapping from a group that includes Bruce’s seven-year-old daughter, Iona, was something he composed for a Les Stroud documentary about the aftermath of a school shooting and the healing power of nature. And Bruce wrote the jazz-tinged “Mt. Lefroy Waltz” for the Group of Seven Guitar Project on an instrument inspired by artist Lauren Harris and custom-made by luthier Linda Manzer. It was originally recorded, with cornet player Ron Miles, bassist Roberto Occhipinti and drummer Gary Craig, for Bruce’s 2017 album Bone on Bone, but it was not released until now.

Bruce doesn’t set out with any particular agenda when composing an instrumental.

It’s more about coming up with an interesting piece,” he said. “Who knows what triggers it—the mood of the day or a dream from the night before. Often the pieces are the result of sitting practicing or fooling around on the guitar. When I find something I like, I work it into a full piece.”

Bardo Rush,” with its urgent, driving rhythm, came after one such dream, while the contemplative “Easter” and the mournful “April in Memphis” were composed on Easter Sunday and Martin Luther King Day respectively. “Blind Willie,” named for one of Bruce’s blues heroes, Blind Willie Johnson, features a fiery guitar and dobro exchange with Colin (Bruce previously recorded Johnson’s “Soul of a Man” on Nothing But a Burning Light). And the idea for the sprightly “Sweetness and Light,” featuring some of Bruce’s best fingerpicking, developed quickly and its title, he said, became immediately obvious.

Meanwhile, “Angels in the Half Light” is steeped in dark and light colors and conveys ominous shades as well as feelings of hopefulness, seemingly touching on both spiritual and political concerns—hallmarks of Bruce from day one.

It’s hard for me to imagine what people’s response is going to be to these pieces,” he said. “It’s different from songs with lyrics, where you hope listeners will understand, intellectually and emotionally, what you’re trying to convey. With instrumental stuff, that specificity isn’t there, and the meaning is up for grabs. But I’m glad if people find a message in the music.”

 More than 40 years since he embarked on his singer-songwriter career, Bruce continues pushing himself to create—and winning accolades in the process. Most recently, the Order of Canada recipient earned a 2018 Juno Award for Contemporary Roots Album of the Year, for

Bone on Bone. He also received a Lifetime Achievement Award from SOCAN and the Peoples’ Voice Award from Folk Alliance International and was inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2017. Bruce, who released his memoir, Rumours of Glory, and its similarly titled companion box set the same year, shows no sign of stopping. As his producer-friend Colin says: “Like the great blues players he admires, Bruce just gets better with age.”

See Bruce live!

  • July 11, 2019 – Algonquin Theatre, Huntsville, ON
  • July 12, 2019 – Capitol Centre, North Bay, ON
  • July 13, 2019  – Jackson-Triggs Niagara Estate Amphitheatre, ON
  • July 14, 2019 – Hillside Festival, Guelph, ON
  • August 7, 2019 – Charles Bailey Theatre, Trail, BC
  • August 8, 2019 – Key City Theatre, Cranbrook, BC
  • August 10, 2019 – Edmonton Folk Festival, Edmonton, AB
  • October 19, 2019 – Koerner Hall, Toronto, ON
  • October 20, 2019 – Centennial Hall, London, ON
  • October 21, 2019 – FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre, St. Catharines, ON
  • November 8, 2019 – Royal Theatre, Victoria, BC

 

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