Some time in the early 90s I went to see a band called Perfect Houseplants. They were a four-piece modern jazz band: saxophones, keyboards, bass and drums. As often happens with jazz bands each musician had a solo slot early in the performance and another member of the band would announce the soloist to the audience. After Martin France on the drums and Dudley Phillips on bass came the keyboard player. As the piano notes faded away the saxophonist, Mark Lockheart, came to the microphone and, clearly at a loss for words, said simply, “The amazing Huw Warren”.
Huw’s excursion on the keyboard had, indeed, been amazing. In the space of just two or three minutes he had given us an improvisation that had wandered from modern jazz through classical to up-tempo folk and back again. But what struck me most was that a fellow musician who knew him well was so blown away by this performance that he couldn’t find adequate words to express his admiration. At that moment, in the Crotchety Hall of Memory, a shiny brass plaque bearing the name Huw Warren was screwed to the wall and the curator still polishes it lovingly from time to time in recognition of that day.
The following year the same venue put on a concert by the English folk singer June Tabor¹. I didn’t hesitate to buy a ticket for several reasons. First, I have always loved June Tabor’s deep, dark chocolate voice and her repertoire of English folk music. I feel some empathy with June, too, because we both went to the same university. When I was there my college won the University Challenge TV competition and June had captained her college team in that competition a few years earlier. It’s a tenuous connection but Oxford alumni do tend to stick together. The most compelling reason, though, for going to this particular June Tabor concert was that her accompanist was to be the pianist I still think of as “the amazing” Huw Warren.
I had hoped that the June Tabor/Huw Warren collaboration would create a folk/jazz fusion to rival the fabulous Pentangle. In that I was disappointed. Where Pentangle created music with elements of both folk and jazz, at first, June Tabor’s songs seemed to lie outside both those styles. Soon, though, I realised that it was just the unusual arrangements, the distinctive voice and my unwarranted expectations that had fooled me into thinking we had left the standard orbit of folk music. With my expectations re-adjusted I was able to sit back and enjoy the evening. I enjoyed it enough to feel the musophile’s irresistible itch for a permanent record of the songs I had heard and came away with June Tabor’s Anthology CD.
Anthology is not available on Spotify as an album, presumably because it’s a compilation and all the tracks can be found on earlier albums released between 1976 and 1992. The link given above is to a playlist that reconstructs the album from the individual songs.
There are 16 songs on Anthology, all of them folk songs, most of them dark and sombre. There are songs about the tragedy of war that leave a lasting bitter taste in the mouth (The Band Played Waltzing Matilda, No Man’s Land). There are songs about life and love and death that bring a salty dampness to the eyes (She Moves Among Men, Strange Affair, Hard Love). And June Tabor’s deep passionate voice makes those songs sound all the bleaker. But it’s not entirely dark and gloomy. There are up-tempo, almost jolly tunes (Dark Eyed Sailor, Heather Down the Moor) and then there’s a wonderfully uplifting story about a pigeon that’s more recited than sung (The King of Rome).
The songs on Anthology are best appreciated from your most comfortable easy chair, free from the distractions of modern living. Shut the door on the kids, turn off the phone, let your eyelids close and allow Ms Tabor’s singing to conjure up mental images of scenes your eyes could never see. But, if you must have something to watch while you listen, here’s a YouTube video of my favourite song from Anthology, Hard Love². Note, however, that the visuals are entirely static. (I guess the video maker agrees with me that the imagination makes more vibrant pictures than any movie camera.)
Over the sixteen year period covered by this compilation June Tabor worked with a number of accomplished musicians from both folk and jazz fraternities. Special mention must go to the folk guitarist, Martin Simpson, and (of course) that immensely versatile pianist, Huw Warren. Together with a few guest musicians they created highly distinctive arrangements to complement June’s voice. And the effect can be stunning.
“She can stop time and draw tears from the stoniest heart. She sings with compassion, honesty, stoicism and a painfully acute sense of life’s transitory hold”. (Sam Saunders)
There is one more aspect of June Tabor’s material in general and of Anthology in particular that I’d like to mention. The song selection seems to have been guided as much by the words as the music. Even in the light-hearted songs the lyrics are never trite and the words of the sad songs have the pathos and profundity of some of the finest modern day poets. As her appearance on University Challenge attests, June is a highly intelligent woman and her choice of material reflects that. Chris Jones, writing on the BBC’s music website, put it like this:
“… the sense of scholarship that she brings to her work never lets you forget that you are listening to, perhaps, the greatest interpreter and curator of indigenous British music”.
Since around 2005 June has been working with Huw Warren and the jazz saxophonist, Iain Ballamy. The trio is known as Quercus and they released an album (also called Quercus) in 2013. I’ve only heard a snippet from that album but, from what I’ve read, it follows the general theme of Anthology in that it presents folk songs, ancient and modern, arranged for a jazz group. Like Anthology, Quercus is not available on Spotify although June Tabor’s artist page there shows a picture of the Quercus trio. (Spotify does list a different artist called Quercus, though. As far as I can see the two are unrelated.)
The June Tabor, Iain Ballamy, Huw Warren incarnation of Quercus has a short tour in the UK next year (2017). Dates and venues can be found here. Crotchety Man would love to go but the logistics are problematic. The album is on my birthday wish list, though. I guess I’ll have to be content with that.
- June Tabor won the BBC Folk Singer of the Year Award in 2004 and 2012.
- Hard Love was written by the American folk singer/songwriter, Bob Franke (rhymes with ‘Yankee’).