It’s surprising that Bay Area guitarist and composer Chuck Johnson is labeled as someone who comes out of the “American Primitive” school, but as with any stylistic label placed on music, it tends to accentuate how diverse and perhaps unfit for the term individual artists might be (cf. minimalism or free jazz). Johnson was in the breezy instrumental art-rock band Shark Quest, as well as the ethnographically influenced string trio Idyll Swords. His live electronic music has appeared under the name Pykrete, and as an improviser, he’s performed and recorded as Ivanovich. Following a few compilation tracks and the 2011 Strange Attractors disc A Struggle Not a Thought, Johnson returns sans nom de plume for Crows in the Basilica, which wraps steel-string guitar soli out of the Takoma/Windham Hill universe in crisp, elemental classicism. Although Johnson himself has a stated affection for country blues guitarists and ragtime music, it would be unfair to place his work simply alongside modern canonical players like John Fahey or Jack Rose. Certainly this music would be unlikely without such forebears, but Johnson definitely provides his own voice.
Early on, Johnson’s ramble seems akin to an Appalachian minimalism, itself derived from English folk music, noticeable on the opening “Across White Oak Mountain,” poised and athletic with an absence of dust. The lushness of Appalachian guitar music is evident in material overlays and progressive lilt, and being slightly divorced from its rural context doesn’t diminish the depth of its effect. There’s a vastness in Johnson’s approach on “Ransom Street Blues,” where a twanged raga aligns itself with long-form country blues maestros (if we’re to call out Fahey, it’s the Fahey of The Yellow Princess) in a multi-part suite filled with slippery turnarounds. On the other hand, “Albion Source” is a haunting and layered composition reminiscent of Vincent Le Masne and Bertrand Porquet’s Guitars Dérive (Shandar, 1974) that subtly shifts into resonant steel-string drive.
The title piece, which begins the second side, is rooted in a progression one almost feels could be played on a harpsichord or dulcimer rather than on guitar, only the occasional ghostly elisions transporting the music back to six strings. In fact, the flip shows more clearly Johnson’s classical approach and early music harmonies, fully visible in the lengthy, measured “On a Slow Passing in Ghost Town,” which traverses a path from Pachelbel to scumbled folk and fleet, interwoven lines. “Mine Creek” is the most traditional of the pieces, and it approaches the Fahey-schooled disco void with glorious, robust introspection, while the closing “Wild Geese on Level Sand” is a narrow, delicate missive of baroque parlor blues based on Chinese song. Music like that of Crows in the Basilica is so present and uncluttered that trying to get to the core of Johnson’s playing is almost antithetical, and it is easy to waste one’s breath either trying to explain who he isn’t as well as who he is. While there are a good number of excellent guitar soli recordings on the map, especially from a younger generation, there is only one Chuck Johnson.