Devin Hoff first heard Anne Briggs’ music about ten years ago, and that moment changed his life, leading him to spend thousands of hours listening to Briggs and eventually recording Voices from the Empty Moor (Songs of Anne Briggs). Striking a chord with Hoff was not just the voice, but the way she sang. “As far singing goes, it is the very creative and seemingly improvisatory approach to embellishment and ornamentation,” he said. “The melodies are played the way a great jazz musician does, endlessly inventive but adhering to the harmonic and/or modal structures established in the original melody.”
Hoff spent years practicing and performing songs from Briggs repertoire on solo bass sets. Eventually he began to branch out, making arrangements for other situations and recorded tracks with Sharon Van Etten, Julia Holter and Shannon Lay. Recorded remotely, the tracks began to take on a life of their own and the long-distance sessions with old friends became something more.
Emerging from a rumbling bass comes the melody of ‘She Moves Through the Fair’, creating something that fuses the jazz-like approach of Briggs with structures established by the original melody. While going farther afield with Sharon Van Etten on ‘Go Your Own Way’, Hoff reworks the guitar part of the song to something that can be played on double bass. As he does that, Van Etten takes an almost jazz approach to the melody, creating an unusual, yet pleasing hybrid.
Based on the skeleton of ‘Let No Man Steal Your Thyme’, this song truly comes to life when Julia Holter improvises over Hoff’s double bass versions of metal music midway through the piece. Perhaps not an admission that one would expect, but nothing about this album is truly based on expectations. Rather it’s the ability to counter the expected in unimaginable ways that always seem to work perfectly. Nothing is exactly what it seems.
‘Ma Bonny Lad’ begins as if everything is relatively normal with bowed basses providing a powerful, yet relatively normal rendition of the song. About halfway through Howard Wiley’s sax sends the song into a different orbit, taking things out of the folk world into a free-jazz context suggesting that there are no longer any rules to how these songs will go.
While Hoff lays down the initial melody to ‘Living By The Water’ on bass, he runs farther afield as Shannon Lay sings the melody while backed by a chorus of ‘Lays’. Knowing that he can count on her gives Hoff the room to attack the song and play off some of her vocal ideas. The approach is fascinating to hear, suggesting musicians who might be jamming in the studio rather than working in different settings at different times.
The opening half of ‘The Snow It Melts the Soonest/ My Bonny Boy’ is primarily a vehicle for the high end of Hoff’s bass, yet the second half of this medley is devoted to the oud of Alejandro Farha. Multiple basses come into play on ‘Blackwater Side’ with Hoff playing the song in ways that closely resembles the work of Bert Jansch, while Emmett Kelly offers a lovely vocal rendition.
A vocal-less version of ‘Willie O’Winsbury’ showcases Jim White on percussion while Hoff handles the guitar and bass, with the bass handling the melody of the tune and the guitar taking over the rhythmic load. While these choices may seem daring, they work because of the musical mastery Hoff puts into the task. Closing the album, a beautifully melancholy rendition of ‘The Lowlands’ suggests Hoff has studied this material and integrated it in ways that clearly expose his appreciation for the source.
That an American from Colorado can translate these songs with such brilliance suggests that Hoff’s Voices From the Empty Moor (Songs of Anne Briggs) is the kind of radical reassessment that can bring these songs into the 21st century.