Quercus. This melancholy, studio-quality live performance is a delicious piece of musicianship that straddles the folk-jazz divide.

Label: ECM
Time: 12 Tracks / 46 minutes

“June Tabor is often referred to as the leading voice in British folk music, but, in reality, her tremendously powerful artistry cannot be confined by that definition. Her resonant, expressive contralto and intelligent approach to song interpretation has taken her beyond a repertoire restricted by regional or national heritage”. That is how John Crosby began the liner notes for Tabor’s Anthology, which covered her career until 1993.

Such compilations can be the last-gasp attempt to gather up an artists’s best work into one body while there is still interest from a fickle public. But Tabor’s career has thrived with new vitality in recent years. 2011’s collaboration with the Oyster Band (Ragged Kingdom) was rightly praised by virtually all critics. The band’s vivacity complemented Tabor’s earthy tones and the song selection was excellent.

Now she has done it again. This collaboration complements the bouncy Ragged Kingdom by a melancholy mood typical of the singer; and whereas Ragged Kingdom used folk’s unsophisticated lyrics, Quercus begins with a Burns poem, follows it with some Shakespeare, and shortly afterwards offers a definitive account of George Butterworths’s setting of A. E. Housman’s war poem “The Lads in their Hundreds.”

But the erudite lyrics are just some of the treats in this collection. The delightful interplay between musicians sets it apart. Accompanying Tabor are Iain Ballamy, superb on tenor and soprano saxes, and her long-term pianist Huw Warren. The genre-bending and understanding between these players is truly remarkable. On “Come Away Death,” Tabor sings folkily with Ballamy’s sax playing in unison. He moves into harmony and after two minutes, Tabor gives way to Warren and the piece becomes an expressive jazz duet that builds for several minutes more. The trio seems to use every combination and trick, always to enhance the songs' essence or the musical magic. But this is not teamwork to read about; it’s musicianship that needs to be heard and savoured.

This performance is assembled with the same loving touch. The poignant Housman piece leads into a piano-based instrumental called “Teares,” which extends the emotional journey. More cheekily, the penultimate track ends with the word, “Cheerio” and the closer – as gorgeous and fluid a melody as you will find anywhere – is a cry to remember love in the shadow of impending death.

We are used to the pristine sound quality that marks ECM recordings. Astonishingly, while this continues that tradition, it is a live recording. The audience must have been issued with muzzles.

Especially as her oaky, smoky rendering of "Brigg Fair" is the essence of her earlier career, the pairing of Quercus and Ragged Kingdom almost makes Anthology redundant. That earlier collection will now be third on my list of preferences when Tabor’s sultry vocals are called for.


Derek Walker

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