June Tabor made her mark in the late 60s and early 70s, singing traditional music unaccompanied. Her primary influences then were, and no doubt remain, Anne Briggs and the Scottish Traveller Belle Stewart, but Tabor has lately explored jazz and other styles, some of which inform the present collection.
The Welsh pianist and composer Huw Warren replaced guitarist Martin Simpson as Tabor’s principal accompanist at around the turn of the century. Warren’s work resists classification. He co-led the jazz quintet Perfect Houseplants on six albums between 1993 and 2000, among which are a brace of collaborations with a Renaissance vocal group, the Orlando Consort.
One of Warren’s partners in Perfect Houseplants was Mark Lockheart, who elsewhere played alongside Quercus’ saxophonist Iain Ballamy (now best known as co-leader of the group Food) in the 80s British jazz orchestra Loose Tubes. Warren and Ballamy’s shared history led to Ballamy’s guest appearance on Tabor’s 2005 album, “At Wood’s Heart”.
Tabor, Warren and Ballamy recorded Quercus (‘oak’ in Latin) at the end of a short tour in March 2006; its eventual release is timed to coincide with another. I suppose you might call it an occasional collaboration.
As a song collection, the album’s focus is on Tabor’s dark, doleful vocals (its lyrics sourced primarily from poets), but Warren’s lyrically simpatico piano playing and Ballamy’s breathy, mellifluous saxophone carry equally weight. The ECM formulation of Tabor’s singing style—”jazz-inspired lyrical improvising”—fits the whole trio just as well.
The album leads with canonical classics—Burns and Shakespeare—but ends with a selection drawn from the familiars of Tabor and her peers among the British folk fraternity.
I confess I’ve never liked Burns, and “Lassie Lie Near Me” makes for a rather maudlin start, but the interpretation of Shakespeare’s “Come Away Death” that follows is beguiling. Tabor’s melancholic vocal is shadowed by feathered and spittle-flecked sax, their duet leading to an instrumental coda of more buoyant playing from Warren, which prompts a speculatively optimistic note in Ballamy’s accompaniment.
There are two pieces with lyrics by Les Barker, a folk poet and writer of comedic monologues, whose group, The Mrs Ackroyd Band, counted Tabor among its members. The Quercus setting of Barker’s “Who Wants the Evening Rose” has perhaps a touch of Kurt Weill to it. This hauntingly oblique lyric must count among its author’s least amusing, but it suits the overall lachrymose mood of Querkus.
The album ends with the trio’s take on Baxter’s even less jocose adaptation of an elegiac lyric by Gregory Norbert, which Norbert recorded in 1974 with his brothers of the Benedictine Weston Priory: this version amplifies the original’s liturgical sobriety.
Tabor has said: “As I get older, I understand more the depths of sorrow and joy that made the song.” On this album she avoids emotive extremes to focus in on the emotional quick of each lyric she essays. The avoidance of humour underlines the narrowness, in aesthetic terms, of the exercise; still, it’s all rather gorgeous, and not without more or less subtle gradations of contrast.
“This is Always” is a jazz nocturne, led by Warren and Ballamy, which essays a yearningly romantic lyric by the American composer for stage and film, Mack Gordon, with a jauntily uplifting lilt; and it ends on a beautifully deft curlicue of a coda. The trio follow it up with “A Tale from History (A Shooting)”, which was penned in the 1990s by the Irish poet, busker and journalist David Ballantine. Tabor’s treatment of Ballantine’s lyric condemnation of sectarian violence vacillates between supreme lyricism, sadness and bile. Musically, this is the album’s most expansive and dramatic piece.
Elsewhere, Tabor tips a nod to her past with a beautifully nuanced, unaccompanied solo take on the traditional song “Brigg Fair”. Warren, too, gets a solo feature: on “Teares” he plays variations on motifs from the music of Renaissance composer/lutenist John Dowland.
In the album’s liner notes, “Near but Far Away” is simply credited to Tabor as a Traditional adaptation, but its music repurposes Ballamy’s “Floater”, a piece he originally recorded with Food on the album Organic and GM Food (2001). The title acknowledges a tradition in which songs are formulated from previously unrelated, ‘floating’ excerpts of full lyrics fragmented by aural dissemination. In such ways Quercus continues in the wider tradition, but it gives it a whole new spin.