The way Joanna Newsom tells it, Ryan Francesconi had a critical role to play in “Have One On Me”: not just as chief arranger and player of the Bulgarian tambura, kaval, mandolin, banjo, recorder and so on, but also (along with drummer Neal Morgan) in steering her towards making “Have One On Me” a triple CD set.

The way Joanna Newsom tells it, Ryan Francesconi had a critical role to play in “Have One On Me”: not just as chief arranger and player of the Bulgarian tambura, kaval, mandolin, banjo, recorder and so on, but also (along with drummer Neal Morgan) in steering her towards making “Have One On Me” a triple CD set.



It’s a bit of a surprise, then, to find Francesconi’s own album doesn’t reflect such extravagance. Instead, “Parables” packs eight pieces into just over half an hour, and consists entirely of Francesconi working away on nothing more exotic than an acoustic guitar.

The results, though, sound less like a paring back of Francesconi’s ambition, and more like an intense concentration of it. When the title track begins “Parables”, there are flurries of guitar that suggest – like Newsom – this Portland, Oregon musician has closely studied Malian kora music. In the accompanying notes, Newsom confirms as much and calls “Parables” “an ecstatic and measured reconciliation of West African/Balkan/Baroque/bluegrass influences, which ultimately resembles nothing I know.”

I can’t pretend to know much – well, anything – about the “Bulgarian folk technique” that Newsom also mentions. One of the striking things about “Parables”, though, is how – that bluegrass allusion notwithstanding – it feels distinctly apart from American folk music. While many of Francesconi’s guitar soloist contemporaries begin their trajectories in the New American Primitive tradition, then often head off into transcendental raga territory, he seems to be following a different path.

The one of those contemporaries that he faintly resembles might be James Blackshaw, in particular his duets with the baroque lute player Jozef Van Wissem in Brethren Of The Free Spirit. I think it’s a certain classical bent, a courtly serenity, a barely discernible medievalism that also, on the likes of “Pravo”, also reminds me of some John Renbourn solo albums.

I suspect I’ve talked about this before when discussing James Blackshaw, but for a non-musician like myself, it can be tricky identifying the strengths of a record like “Parables” without tending towards a rather woolly, nebulous way of writing about music. Suffice to say, perhaps, that it’s quite lovely; that it has an appealingly contemplative air throughout, as if Francesconi can project an air of calm through his music even in the midst of fiendish technical complexity; and that the album it reminds me of most is Toumani Diabaté’s “Mande Variations”, which ranks as pretty high praise.