THE ORIGINAL Quercus album of 2013 – a live recording of a concert from several years earlier – was one of those musically defining moments where folk and jazz were both eloquently and movingly brought together. So this second release from vocalist June Tabor, saxophonist Iain Ballamy and pianist Huw Warren should surely delight the many who first rose to applaud the emergence of these already respected musicians as a trio.
Initially, Nightfall does appear to be the anticipated, natural progression – why wouldn’t it? But as you allow yourself to take them to your heart, these eleven new expressions of songs (of traditional folk origin and from the likes of Bob Dylan and Stephen Sondheim / Leonard Bernstein) begin to surrender their emotional array of treasures; so much so that perhaps it even surpasses the attraction of that still much-played debut. Recorded in rural Somerset, this studio account loses nothing of Quercus’ perfect synergy as they again combine to present music from different sources with customary poise and attention to detail.
Ballamy’s instantly distinctive tenor sound, one of the most oratory in contemporary jazz (and still summoning the magic of his The Little Radio album with Stian Carstensen) is flawlessly matched to the rich, resonant voice of June Tabor, who has remained such a great ambassador of English folk music. And though Huw Warren is also known for his pianistic exuberance – as witnesses to the fervour of his Brazilian- or African-flavoured jazz performances will concur – here his ruminative and precise focus unwaveringly articulates Tabor’s poetic storytelling, where predominant themes of longing, love and loss are balanced with glimpses of light.
On Berrow Sands‘ warning of the perils of the Bristol Channel are elucidated by Tabor’s siren-like lament (reminiscent of her Ashore album), the haunting repetition of ‘Away, keep away, the gulls do cry…’ affirmed by Warren’s ominous, perpetual currents and darkly-plumbed depths. Reinterpreted strains of Auld Lang Syne paint Robert Burns’ familiar words with subdued melancholy; and Iain Ballamy’s subtle control which, throughout this session, can enter and recede almost imperceptibly, is so intelligently shaped. His more obvious lyricism can be heard intertwining with Tabor’s heartfelt four-line stanzas in 19th Century folk tale The Irish Girl and the evocative, sunset hues of The Shepherd and His Dog, whilst Emmeline – Ballamy’s own instrumental, shared with Warren – tumbles with sweet, open innocence.
An especially bluesy rendition of You Don’t Know What Love Is aches to June Tabor’s rubato enunciation, inviting breathy improvisations from Ballamy; the singer’s tormented narrative in traditional folk song The Manchester Angel is particularly compelling; and Huw Warren’s piano-and-soprano sax instrumental Christchurch possesses a wistful elegance. In that vein, Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright is almost unrecognisable in a superbly resigned reinvention of Bob Dylan’s sparse guitar-and-vocal original, Tabor’s subtle, conversational inflections bringing the lyric to life over Huw Warren’s deliciously chromatic gospel accompaniment. Both pianist and saxophonist charmingly ornament the blithe poetry of Dorset gypsy song The Cuckoo; and Sondheim/Bernstein favourite Somewhere, maybe more than ever, has the power to echo our ever-present feelings of despair and hope, Iain Ballamy’s luscious tenor spirit suggesting a pathway to the latter.
This is a recording which, to quote Sondheim, needs ‘a time, a place’. Ascend a tor or a ‘moel’ with Nightfall in your ears – and for a mountain-top experience like no other, it’s up there… somewhere.
June Tabor voice
Iain Ballamy tenor saxophone, soprano saxophone
Huw Warren piano
ECM Records – 574 3078 (ECM 2522) (2017)