United Kingdom Quercus: [June Tabor (vocal) Huw Warren (piano) Iain Ballamy (tenor saxophone)], Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Cardiff, 3.6.2016. (GPu)
As jazz has grown and spread from its native land into all parts of the globe, one especially interesting phenomenon has been the variety of ways in which it has interacted with the traditional folk musics of its new ‘homes’. Impressive examples might be cited in abundance – a couple that come immediately to mind are the extended piece by the Swedish reed player Arne Domnerus, ‘Adventures in Jazz and Folklore’ on the album Arne Domnerus Septet in Concert, Live ’96 (Caprice) and the remarkable music to be heard on two albums by the Sicilian bassist Marcello Melis and his colleagues – The New Village on the Left and Free to Dance (both issued on Black Saint). British jazz musicians haven’t generally made such striking use of ‘their’ native musical resources, but Quercus are a vivid counter-example. The trio has worked together for some seven years, but has only recently made its first recording (Quercus ECM 2276). Its central figure is June Tabor one of the most authoritative and accomplished modern singers of English folk song. She has also worked outside that particular tradition (notably with the folk-rock group the Oyster Band), while always remaining firmly grounded within it. Huw Warren and Iain Ballamy are natural collaborators too. Though both initially gained wide attention as jazz musicians, both seem never to have felt confined by that label. One of Warren’s best recordings is Hermeto+ (Basho), which mixes his own compositions with those of the great Brazilian eclectic Hermeto Pascoal. As co-leader of the quartet Perfect House Plants he has collaborated on projects with Andrew Manze and the Orlando Consort. He has recorded, with the singer Llewen Steffan, a disc of Welsh hymns – God Only Knows (Babel) and in recent years has worked with classical pianist Joanna Macgregor and recorder player Pamela Thorby. Iain Ballamy has displayed a similar openness of mind and ears, having worked in environments as diverse as those provided by the unconventional big band Loose Tubes, the Karnataka College of Percussion, the Britten Sinfonia, the pianist Carla Bley and the Norwegian accordionist Stian Carstensen.
Tabor, Warren and Ballamy came on stage dressed in austere black clothes, something which set the mood for much of what followed. Throughout. The performance was noticeably ego-free, devoid of the slightest showboating or showmanship, quite without displays of musical or technical cleverness. This ‘austerity’ was, however, both musically and emotionally very rich. Here was high musicianship, in individual and ensemble terms alike, deployed entirely in the service of some fascinating materials rather than as crowd-exciting display.
The spine of the concert was made up of relatively ‘straight’ (if one makes allowance for the unorthodox instrumental accompaniment) readings of some very fine traditional songs. These included two (‘Severn Side’ and ‘The Cuckoo’) associated with the great gipsy singer from Dorset, Queen Carolyne Hughes, ‘The Manchester Angel’ – a ballad of the 1745 rebellion, and Robert Burns’s song ‘Long Hae (Have) We Parted’, based on a melody which goes back at least as far as Playford’s Dancing Master of 1650. But other kinds of material featured too, such as Bob Dylan’s ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right’, ‘This is Always’ (by Harry Warren and Mich Gordon) and ‘You Don’t Know What Love Is’ (by Don Raye and Gene De Paul). In a programme which made a rewarding virtue of ignoring all generic boundaries, we also heard performances of ‘Since First I Saw Your Face’, usually attributed to Thomas Ford and first published in Musicke of Sundrie Kinds in 1607. Even more unexpected were George Butterworth’s setting of ‘The Lads in their Hundreds’ from Housman’s A Shropshire Lad (Butterworth himself was, of course, steeped in the English Folk tradition, and (quite unrelated to that tradition) the Bernstein / Sondheim songs ‘Somewhere’ from West Side Story.
The remarkable thing was that Tabor sang all this diverse material in a manner which simultaneously remained true to herself and faithful to the ‘originals’, giving them all the kind of gravity and haunting power with which she performs Folk Song. Tabor’s voice (she is now in her late 60s) has a limited range, but the exactness and subtlety of her interpretation of sung texts, her responsiveness to poetic resonance, her beautiful phrasing and the absolute investment of herself in each song, give to all she sings a rich, if austere beauty and a great weight of meaning. Warren’s piano improvisations, especially on the ‘folk’ material often seemed based more on the song’s themes than on the kind of chord sequences which underlie so much jazz improvisation. Ballamy’s work on tenor was always intelligent and subtle, offering unflamboyant commentary and interweaving with Tabor’s voice in ways that (though of course the musical idioms were entirely different) were reminiscent of Lester Young with Billie Holiday.
The rich austerity of the whole programme held the audience rapt and attentive throughout. Highlights (though it is invidious to pick any in a concert so consistently fine) included ‘The Cuckoo’, both plaintive and witty, ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right’ and, altogether memorable, ‘You Don’t Know What Love Is’, deeply moving in its exploration of ‘love gone wrong’ (which June Tabor had earlier ‘announced’ as the connecting theme of the programme). This was one of the few versions of this song I have ever heard which bore any comparison with the emotional gravity and truth of Billie Holiday’s recording of it.
In the spells when Tabor left the stage, Warren and Ballamy played some duets which included one tune composed by each (more obviously within the idiomatic parameters of contemporary jazz) and a fine version (again evidence of their openness to music beyond that idiom) of Hermeto Pascoal’s beautiful ‘Farol Que Nos Guia’ (the Brazilian Pascoal, one of the greatest cross-genre musicians of our time, might, indeed, stand as a kind of presiding patron of a project such as Quercus).
The trio’s chosen name, Quercus, is one of the Latin words for the oak, a sacred tree in many religious traditions. Its longevity and its height makes the oak a symbol of enduring traditions (as do its deep and extensive roots) and of continuous growth over many years. The music of this trio is, likewise, deeply rooted in tradition, yet full of new growths. The kind of constant renewal of tradition of which the oak is a potent symbol was no more evident than in the song which closed the evening (as an encore of sorts) – ‘Somewhere’ from West Side Story. June Tabor’s introduction of the song spoke of it as an example of that phenomenon whereby a piece of music (or indeed a poem or a painting) can, as the years go by, accrue meanings unthought of and unintended by those who wrote/painted it (she cited, as other examples, ‘We’ll Meet Again’ and ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone), adding that in the case of ‘Somewhere’ she could no longer hear or sing it “without thinking of those clinging to a rubber boat off the coast of Libya, gazing at the barbed wire on the Hungarian border, or stuck in the ‘jungle’ near Calais”. And indeed one inescapably heard such resonances in her passionate delivery of the song’s lyrics – “There’s a place for us / Somewhere a place for us / Peace and quiet and open air / Wait for us somewhere // … // Some day, some day, somewhere, somewhere / We’ll find a new way of living / We’ll find there’s a way of forgiving / Somewhere”. Such words, one was soon comprehensively persuaded, had meanings quite transcending those intended by Stephen Sondheim when he write them. Indeed, “comprehensively persuasive” wouldn’t be a bad description of this concert as a whole.