Between A Breath And A Breath

Dyble Longdon

English Electric, 2020

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


Collaborations test the theory whereby the whole is said to be greater than the sum of its parts. Sometimes it is and sometimes it isn’t. What adds to the intrigue in the case of Dyble Longdon is the idea of legacy, and how that can play into the end result.

When the 21st century dawned Judy Dyble was already very much an icon in British music circles. A founding member of legendary folk-rock collective Fairport Convention, she also sang with Robert Fripp’s pre-King Crimson outfit Giles, Giles and Fripp and co-founded the duo Trader Horne with Jackie McAuley, formerly of Them. Much of this activity occurred before her 21st birthday in 1970; in 1973 she left the music business for the better part of three decades, other than a handful of appearances in the ’80s and ’90s at the annual Fairport Convention reunion shows.

In 2003 Dyble re-emerged as a singer-songwriter and began a series of collaborations—too many to recount here, but do check them out if you’re curious—that would continue up through her 2017 teaming with Big Big Train singer-songwriter-multi-instrumentalist David Longdon on “The Ivy Gate,” a duet which appeared on BBT’s 2017 album Grimspound. Not long after, Dyble was diagnosed with lung cancer. Knowing that her time was likely short, and both having enjoyed their collaboration very much, Dyble and Longdon resolved to continue working together.

The resulting album, with its pungent, poignant title Between A Breath And A Breath, was completed prior to, but released three months after, Dyble’s passing in July 2020. It features Dyble’s words in tandem with Longdon’s music and production, with both providing vocals and various members of each artist’s musical circles contributing. And it is a remarkable creation, a sort of smorgasbord of chamber-folk-prog featuring the pair in a series of rangy duets, alternately personal and playful, contemplative and jamming, a collection of performances whose high points will endure as part of both principals’ musical legacies.

Kickoff cut “Astrologers” establishes the vibe, a song whose arrangement—grounded in abundant acoustic guitar, flute, orchestration and gentle keyboards—manages to be grand without being grandiose. It also immediately undercuts any sense of gravity lingering around the album’s context with a cheeky, admonishing lyric: “Oh stop it now—you astrologers / With promises of love a-coming.” The way Dyble and Longdon’s vocals play off of one another—Dyble’s rather delicate and formal voice generally in the lead, complemented by Longdon’s earthier, expressive tones—works beautifully as the pair trades bits and sometimes sings in unison. Longdon’s myriad instrumental contributions are supplemented on this track by his ex-BBT bandmate Dave Gregory on guitar, Dyble’s frequent collaborator Andy Lewis on bass, and Jeff Davenport of Jade Warrior on drums.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Next up, “Obedience” offers a bit of pastoral flavor, with a soaring aspect fueled by a circular acoustic riff and driving drums, with the pair’s call and answer vocals again working very nicely as Dyble rebels against all who would have hemmed her in with rules and expectations. The latter moments of the five-minute track feature a distinct Genesis tint to them with lush synth orchestration and soaring chorused vocals lending a sense of lift. On this one you have effectively half of BBT on board, with Davenport’s drums complemented by Rachel Hall (violin), Danny Manners (double bass) and Greg Spawton (bass pedals).

“Tidying Away The Pieces” opens in an airy realm over a knotty, complicated rhythm, with Dyble’s vocals feeling somewhat fragile even as her cadence and precise enunciation emphasize her Britishness. In the fourth minute they bring in trumpet, something of an elegiac fanfare over Davenport’s steady, dramatic backbeat, fitting for this number about tidying up both possessions and emotions in the wake of loss.

The title track—closing out “Side One,” as the old-school creators of this album have presented it—offers an especially thoughtful contemplation of the in-between, those places “where the magic lies.” Three minutes in, the song blossoms and takes on some rock drive, before falling back to this crushingly poignant finish: “Where the space ’twixt this world and the next / Is anyone’s guess / Between a breath / And a breath.” Oof.

“Side Two” opens with the proggiest number here, "France," a nearly 12-minute excursion featuring the entire BBT lineup of the time in the persons of Hall (violin), Manners (double bass), Spawton (bass and bass pedals), Rikard Sjoblom (accordion) and Nick D’Virgilio (drums and percussion). Sjoblom is featured often, setting an appropriately continental atmosphere as Dyble revisits the days after “I would marry a man from a place near Paris,” drawing an evocative portrait of her former husband’s centuries-old family home, a French chateau. D’Virgilio in particular shines at navigating the many transitions between the piece’s distinctly different segments, which vary from atmospheric verses to bold and lively interludes to dreamy fugues, and he powers the band through the song’s stirring climax.

“Whisper” opens airy and chiming with Longdon, Lewis and Davenport giving the tune a rather Renaissance flavor before it begins to billow outward, growing steadily as Longdon adds fresh textures and transforming dynamics, compiling a paragraph’s worth of instrumental credits on this track alone. It’s a bravura job of underscoring a beautiful tune about the special sisterhood Dyble shared with an aunt who was a fellow introvert and artist.

Closer “Heartwashing” offers a jazzy coda, deploying Luca Calabrese’s trumpet and a booming low end from Manners, Spawton and Davenport to create a rich atmosphere over which Dyble recites an evocative poem about letting go of loss and preparing for whatever comes next. The final four lines comprise a sort of self-epitaph: “And she looks clearly into her future / With open eyes and a resigned and patient heart / For what will be the next adventure / Should there be such a thing.” (Again: oof.)

Frequent BBT album cover artist Sarah Ewing—by the time of this album also Longdon’s romantic partner—provides particularly evocative and gorgeous artwork here, and the packaging and presentation by English Electric is characteristically detailed and complementary to the music it contains.

It’s natural for the listener to wonder if Longdon may have imagined that, by partnering with Dyble to create this album, he was helping to cement her musical and artistic legacy. What he couldn’t have known is that they were effectively both doing that, each for the other. With Longdon’s sudden passing in November 2021, this album now feels like something of a memorial to both of its principals. In that role it serves magnificently, a moving portrait of mortality and creativity that’s full of life and wit and musical invention, and one that, for all its acknowledgement of loss and death, urges us all to keep looking ahead toward “the next adventure.” It seems to me the best way to honor the memories of Judy Dyble and David Longdon is to take that advice.

Rating: A-

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