Quercus – Nightfall
(ECM 2522. CD review by Mike Collins)
There’s a moment, towards the end of this unique trio’s version of Somewhere from West Side Story, that captures the essence of their finely crafted, distilled sound. As June Tabor sings a melancholy laden final ‘Somewhere’, its hard to tell when her voice fades into Iain Ballamy’s tenor sound, so exquisitely blended are they. Ballamy’s sculpted lines glance off Huw Warren’s delicately dancing piano accompaniment to complete the final resolution. It’s a spine tingling moment to close a luminous set, the group’s follow up to their 2013 self-titled ECM release.
The repertoire is the same distinctive blend of traditional folk and jazz, but it doesn’t seem to matter what the source materials are, these three peerless musicians mould them into an unmistakable sound. The most familiar of songs is like a new thing in their hands. Tabor has an entirely personal way of approaching and falling away from a note. It means Auld Lang Syne catches the listener unawares. The queen of folk knows how to make a lyric pulsate with meaning and nuance; Dylan’s Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright is breathtaking before Ballamy’s perfectly judged break, nudged along by Warren’s insistently grooving accompaniment. There are traditional folk songs with a sprinkling of jazz standards. Ballamy and Warren are all texture and atmosphere on Berrow Sands, dancing and melodic on The Manchester Angel and The Cuckoo. You Don’t Know What Love Is has one of Ballamy’s more expansive moments, the timbre of his instrumental voice and way of twisting through a melody is no less distinctive than Tabor’s. Huw Warren is the third essential element of the musical chemistry. His exquisite touch and judgment imbue every piece with momentum and colour.
There’s an English-Welsh twist to this package. To say an ECM album is beautifully recorded is a truism, I did nevertheless check where this one was recorded. It turned out to be Cooper Hall in Frome, Somerset. The town has become the adoptive home of a surprising number of féted musicians, Ballamy amongst them. Other credits are fellow local resident as recording engineer, Mike Mower (former lead of saxophone quartet Itchy Fingers) and, not be left out, a Welsh angle with photo credits going to Cardiff based Tim Dickeson (also co-founder of Edition Records). This may not presage a UK takeover of ECM records, but this home-grown triumph is a not-to-be-missed addition to the iconic label’s catalogue.