“An unlikely trio, you might think, but the combination proves quite magical. Together they create a subtle new idiom.”
Quercus, the trio in which pianist Huw Warren and saxophonist Ian Ballamy shape new contexts for the dark and moving voice of June Tabor, made a major impact with its ECM debut album, issued in 2013. The recording won the German Record Critics’ Prize as Album of the Year (Preis der deutschen Schallplattenkritik, Jahrespreis) and the international press recognized what the UK folk world has known for many years: that nobody gets inside the meaning of a song in the way that June Tabor does, illuminating a lyric and exploring a tune’s emotional atmosphere.
On Nightfall, recorded in December 2015 at Cooper Hall in the Somerset town of Frome and produced by Warren and Ballamy, Quercus takes its creative process to the next level. There are wonderful songs from folk tradition here, including “The Manchester Angel” and the 19th century broadside “Once I Loved you Dear (The Irish Girl)”, pieces collected by Somerset folklorist Ruth Tongue (“On Berrow Sands” and “The Shepherd and his Dog”), a charming version of “The Cuckoo” inspired by the singing of Dorset gypsy Queen Caroline Hughes, and there are subtly phrased instrumental pieces – Warren’s pastoral “Christchurch”, Ballamy’s ballad “Emmeline”.
There are also four songs which almost every listener will know. The album opens with that most famous song of farewell, “Auld Lang Syne”, and right away Tabor, Ballamy and Warren alert us to the notion that even the most familiar songs can yield new meaning if looked at from new perspectives (and there’s a link here, too, to the first album which also began with June Tabor singing words of Robert Burns). Freshly arranged versions of Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice”, the West Side Story Bernstein/Sondheim song of yearning “Somewhere”, and the jazz standard “You Don’t Know What Love Is” similarly prove to be fine vehicles for Tabor’s focused, respectful and austere approach, a matter of honouring the song, even while transforming it. Traditional folk song, contemporary songs, show tunes, jazz – Quercus’s concept can embrace it all.
“The folk singer June Tabor has been a marvel of English music since the 1960s, and her long-term pianist Huw Warren and saxophonist Iain Ballamy only enhance her clarity, stillness and deep but fragile sound,” wrote The Guardian’s John Fordham of the trio’s debut album. “Nobody plays a note too many or expresses a false emotion. It’s a unique tribute to the power of song.”
As melodic counterpart to Tabor, saxophonist Iain Ballamy is an ideal partner. In a sense, he is a second singer in Quercus. His other primary ECM context, the electro-improv band Food – see the albums Quiet Inlet, Mercurial Balm, This Is Not A Miracle – might seem a long way from Quercus’s pristine sound-world, but there too Ballamy has been refining his sound down to essentials and savouring each tone.
Pianist Huw Warren, whose rare combination of originality and understatement has been appreciated by many singers, has been arranger-accompanist for Tabor for nearly three decades. Concurrently, he has been active across a broad span of genres, as composer, jazz improviser and educator, and has worked with musicians from the Scottish Chamber Orchestra to Kenny Wheeler. Huw Warren and Iain Ballamy also play duo concerts.