The trio Quercus delivers profound and moving interpretations of traditional and non-traditional song on its debut album, approaching the heart of the material by unorthodox routes. In this unique group, the dark voice of the great English folksinger June Tabor is framed and supported by the quietly adventurous arrangements and subtle improvisations of Iain Ballamy and Huw Warren. Warren has worked with Tabor for 25 years already and made important contributions to her albums. “His piano”, The Guardian has observed, “has teased out the deeper autumnal colours in Tabor’s range.” The nature of their association in Quercus is different, however. This is very much a collaborative band. Together and from different vantage points singer, saxophonist and pianist explore the emotional core of the songs. Most importantly, the songs and the words are respected as instrumental skills and melodic imaginations are harnessed to illuminate them.
The first part of “Come Away Death”, for instance, based upon Shakespeare’s text from Twelfth Night, finds Ballamy’s tenor sax chanting with the vocal line. “One of the things I’m trying to do in Quercus”, Ballamy says, “is to make one sound with June’s voice. It’s a matter of tone and precise control of volume. When you have music in tune and deeply blended at the source like that it can be very powerful in the moment. As a goal, that’s much more interesting to me than the execution of a clever solo.” The second half of the piece is Ballamy’s instrumental setting of the text, saxophone and piano dancing to an iambic beat.
In common with most of Tabor’s work, material selected does not shy from life’s big topics: death, war and betrayal are themes here, but also love, fidelity and reunion. The album opens tenderly with Robert Burns’ “Lassie Lie Near Me”, but before long the transitory nature of happiness is captured in A.E. Housman’s World War I poem “The Lads In Their Hundreds” set to George Butterworth’s music in an arrangement by Ballamy. Warren’s solo piece “Teares”, channeling Dowland, is an appropriate response…
The chamber music precision of Quercus’ performance belies the fact that it was recorded live at the end of a British tour in 2006, at the Anvil in Basingstoke. (As Ballamy recalls, “the piano was excellent, the acoustics in the hall were good, and nobody coughed.”) The tapes were mixed in Oslo in 2012 by Manfred Eicher and Jan Erik Kongshaug, together with Ballamy and Warren.
An important figure in British music since the 1960s, June Tabor first attracted attention singing unaccompanied traditional songs in the folk clubs (The present disc includes a beautiful solo performance of “Brigg Fair”). Tabor’s distinguished discography has emphasized the primacy of traditional material but she has proven to be a gripping interpreter of songs from many sources. The recipient of a number of prizes, she swept the BBC’s Folk Awards in 2012 winning prizes as folk singer of the year, and album and track of the year prizes for her collaborations with Oysterband on “Ragged Kingdom” (Topic Records). “June Tabor’s repertoire has never been blinkered by a quest for authenticity: she has covered all territories from Weimar ballads via jazz to the most trad of trad English folk. And yet, the sense of scholarship that she brings to her work never lets you forget that you are listening to, perhaps, the greatest interpreter and curator of indigenous British music”, said Chris Jones of BBC Online.
Iain Ballamy’s been a major contributor to aspects of improvised music in Britain for three decades, leading his own quartet at Ronnie Scott’s when just 20. He was a co-founder of Loose Tubes, the innovative large ensemble, in 1984, has had long playing associations with Django Bates and Billy Jenkins and has played with many major figures in international jazz including Hermeto Pascoal, Gil Evans, Dewey Redman, Mike Gibbs and more. In 2001 he was awarded the BBC Radio 3 special award for innovation at the British Jazz Awards. He is well-known to ECM listeners for his work with the experimental group Food of which he is co-leader with Thomas Strønen (albums include “Quiet Inlet” and “Mercurial Balm”). Other current projects include a saxophone and button accordion duo with Stian Carstensen, and the jazz quartet Anorak with Gareth Williams, Steve Watts and Martin France. Ballamy’s invitation to play on June Tabor’s album “At The Wood’s Heart”, as well as collaboration with Huw Warren in a number of contexts, led to the formation of Quercus.
Welsh-born Huw Warren played cello and organ before attending Goldsmiths College in London where he studied with John Tilbury, the experimental pianist associated with AMM and post-Cage new music. Warren subsequently became involved in both jazz and avant garde scenes and his work since has roved fearlessly through the genres. He co-led the jazz group Perfect Houseplants, produced early music projects with Andrew Manze and the Orlando Consort, toured widely with the Creative Jazz Orchestra, and in recent seasons has collaborated with Maria Pia de Vito, Mark Feldman, Ralph Towner and many others. As a session player he has worked with Billy Bragg, Elvis Costello, Eddi Reader and more. Huw Warren has been pianist and musical director for June Tabor since 1988.