Review: Quercus in Southampton

Quercus's wide-ranging set list draws on jazz, folk and more to give Michael Tucker one of the most compelling concerts he's heard in some time 

The Turner Sims Hall in Southampton was as full as I've seen it recently as the Quercus trio of Iain Ballamy (ts) June Tabor (v) and Huw Warren (p) (pictured right) delivered two memorable, richly appreciated sets. The group's eponymous first recording, released on ECM in 2013, received the prestigious German Record Critics' Prize as Album of the Year while also achieving considerable commercial success. Released this month, Nightfall - the second ECM disc from the trio whose name, translated from the Latin, is Oak - continues the good news with another wide-ranging selection of striking, time-tested material made new through many a thoughtful arrangement and superlative playing and performing all round.

Elvis Costello said once that if you can't enjoy the voice of June Tabor, perhaps you should stop listening to music. Certainly, I've heard precious little in any genre which is as strikingly beautiful as, say, Tabor's rendition of Across The Wide Ocean, the concluding piece on her 2011 Ashore album on Topic. Like much of her music, this features dynamically astute, rippling jazz-inflected piano and deliciously judged, nudging rhythmic and melodic arcs from the Welshman Huw Warren - a splendid, fully two-handed player with a fine capacity for nuances of harmony and texture, and long Tabor's chief collaborator and arranger. Her association with the ex-Perfect Houseplants man goes back over three decades and they have been performing with Ballamy from at least 2006, when the initial Quercus album was recorded live by the excellent sound engineer Paul Sparrow - who was also in charge of things tonight.

This was folk-underpinned, jazz-touched chamber music of a special kind. As JJ's Dave Gelly has remarked, “ An unusual trio, you might think, but the combination proves quite magical. Together they create a subtle new idiom.” Subtlety was at the heart of Ballamy's consistently arresting contributions as he gave both Tabor and Warren plenty of space, never crowding things. On tenor throughout, he offered one liquid yet incisive melodic line after another, worthy of comparison with those on Coltrane's Ballads album. “It's what you leave out that's important in this music”, he said to me afterwards.

Known primarily as a folk singer with an uncanny ability to get to the emotional core of her thoroughly researched material, Tabor has long had an ear for jazz and the new disc Nightfall features a moving rendition of the Don Raye/Gene De Paul classic You Don't Know What Love Is. It was given a superb reading in the second set of the concert, rounding out a three-part reflection on love and longing, loss and resilience which embraced a song from the 17th century and the traditional piece The Cuckoo, inspired by the singing of the Dorset gipsy Caroline Hughes - or Queen Caroline, as Tabor called her.

Tabor's appearance on ECM, a label long known for crossing or redefining genres, would seem the most natural or organic of developments. Projected with unadorned clarity and telling economy, the unforced yet resonant poetics of her soulful sound, intonation and phrasing consistently got to the heart of things, eschewing any needless embellishment. As I said to her after the gig, she could probably sing Three Blind Mice and get my tears rolling. But she - and Quercus - are not all sombre mood and sadness: far from it. A good deal of the music spoke, in a range of register, of a spirited resistance to life's various travails and in the first set, following the opening The Lazy Wave - a typically haunting ad libitum piece, yet to be recorded - a lightly sprung Latin outing struck a warm and welcome note of smiling affirmation. As long-time enthusiasts of her music will know, there's a good deal of humour in Tabor and here she proved to be a consummate performer. Her various introductions to the music combined helpful scene-setting narrative context with dry, wry, and sometime salty asides - as in her introduction, in the second set, to a stirring version of Richard Thompson's Beat The Retreat.

The bulk of the concert came from the Quercus and Nightfall releases, including such archetypal material as The Irish Girl and The Manchester Angel (the latter inspiring some of Ballamy's most heated playing of the night), Burns's Lassie Come Lie With Me and Auld Lang Syne and Dylan's Don't Think Twice, It's Alright. A special highlight was the extended treatment of A. E. Housman's The Lads In Their Hundreds, recorded on the Quercus album. A haunting transition passage from Warren led to a concluding recitative where Tabor told of the grim fate, in the First World War, of George Butterworth – the man who in 1913 set to music so effectively what Tabor rightly called the song-poems of Housman's 1896 collection A Shropshire Lad. Folk, jazz and classical sensibilities here melded in that magical way noted by Dave Gelly, suffused with a most special English atmosphere.

There were also two duo pieces from Warren and Ballamy, Christchurch and Emmeline from the Nightfall disc, each as exploratory as it was reflective. All in all, this was one of the most compelling concerts I've heard in quite some while and, judging by the thunderous applause which drew the surpassing encore of Auld Lang Syne, many shared my view. Fortunately, further gigs are scheduled for May, in Oxford and London: music this marvellous doesn't come around all that often.

Photo by Tim Dickeson

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