CD review: Quercus

quercus(ECM 372 4555)

I concluded a 2006 review of a concert at the mac in Birmingham given by Quercus – singer June Tabor, pianist Huw Warren and saxophonist Iain Ballamy – with the words: “Thoroughly enriching throughout, and a project which we should all hope will develop further.”

That hope withered over the years and had all but died when, joy of joys, this album arrived in the post. It might be released in April 2013 but it was recorded at the end of that 2006 tour, unbelievably before a live audience because it sounds like a studio recording, and a very good one too, and the music digitally preserved within is every bit as good as I remember it – maybe even better.

From the first lilting piano phrase and those exquisitely voiced chords that Warren plays in introduction to the traditional setting of Robert Burns’ Lassie Lie Near Me, to Tabor’s plain articulation of the words and low, resonant tone, joined in perfect sympathy by Ballamy’s tenor, the world outside the music seems to stop. The breath is held, the heart swells, the features soften, cares and woes fall away – it’s utterly compelling and totally encompassing, this music. Just listen to Ballamy and Warren on the outro – such a rich treat.

In William Shakespeare’s Come Away Death Tabor and Ballamy trace the rearranged traditional melody together, Tabor’s voice leaning towards the saxophone’s rich tone, Ballamy’s saxophone taking on an almost vocal phrasing.

There is A E Housman’s The Lads In Their Hundreds, to a melody by George Butterworth arranged by Ballamy, there is the traditional folk songs As I Roved Out and Near But Far Away, there is a bit of classic Tin Pan Alley in Harry Warren and Mack Gordon’s This Is Always, there is more modern folk music in Les Barker and Yosef Hadar’s Who Wants The  English Rose and David Ballantine’s A Tale From History (The Shooting). It’s all done with great sensitivity, restrained passion and the most natural, yet sophisticated, musicality.

Iain Ballamy, June Tabor and Huw Warren

Iain Ballamy, June Tabor and Huw Warren

What is it about June Tabor’s voice, about Huw Warren’s piano playing, about Iain Ballamy’s saxophone that, in combination, always brings me to the brink of tears? It must be something to do with the restraint and pared down nature of the music, and yet the rich and most crucial matters of life that lie within. There is no cheap emotion here, and certainly no manipulation of the listener (Think of that music you hear on those programmes like Pop Idol; then think of the complete opposite).

There is one of Warren’s lovely John Dowland-inspired solo piano pieces, there is Tabor’s unaccompanied reading of Brigg Fair, and there is the moving finale of All I Ask Of You, which was written by the monk Gregory Norbert and arranged by Ballamy and Django Bates, which I first heard as an instrumental on Ballamy’s 1989 album Balloon Man, played in dedication to his late wife.

American jazz has always incorporated its traditional music – the blues, gospel, bluegrass and all – but the meeting of jazz and the folk traditions of these islands has, by comparison, rarely been explored. This is surely the most fruitful example of that meeting.

And as if there weren’t riches enough to be gained from listening to this CD, there is more: Quercus are touring at the moment and there are still these dates to catch them:

Thursday 25 April – St George’s, Bristol
Saturday 27 April – The Sage, Gateshead
Monday 29 April – Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry
Tuesday 30 April – LSO St Luke’s, London
Friday 31 May – Playhouse, Salisbury

Categories: CD review

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4 replies

  1. I agree about the combination of Tabor and the others bringing ne to tears. Their version of the writing of Tipperary on another album does that -always . Nice to know someone else feels that deep touch.


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