Sunday 18 June 2017

CD Review: Nightfall, Quercus (ECM, 2017)

Quite a lot’s been said, in recent years, about so-called Slow Cinema, the minimalist, observational aesthetic that characterises a certain strand of contemporary filmmaking, including work by the likes of Tsai Ming-liang, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Apichatpong Weerasethtkal and Bela Tarr. While theres no denying that the films of these directors are challenging, and may, at their weakest, induce frustration, there can also be something gloriously subversive about their languorous approach and the way that it requires the viewer to take their time, to look closer and really work with the images. Indeed, Thomas Elsaesser sees the form as an act of organised resistance (analogous to the Slow food movement) that challenges the hyper, fast-cut style of most contemporary filmmaking - and, I would add, the incessant, damagingly choppy experience of online activity,  referred to by James Wolcott as the hyperspace of attention-deficit culture.

If theres a musical equivalent to the profound pleasures offered by Slow Cinema at its best, then one prime exponent is Quercus, the folk jazz trio comprising June Tabor (vocals), Huw Warren (piano) and Iain Ballamy (saxaphones). A wonderful sense of spaciousness and expansiveness, an attentive, meditative quality, characterises this group’s music, and the results are deeply restorative and rewarding. 

Art cinema has often been cited by Tabor as an influence on her work; after all, her second solo album, Ashes and Diamonds, was named for the final part of Andrzej Wajdas War Trilogy, while the elliptical, image-rich qualities of folk ballads (and some contemporary song writing, such as Lal Watersons and Bill Caddick's) have been compared by her to film narrative, something that she discussed with me in interview back in 2011. The cinematic aspects of Quercus’s work have to do with ambience, the way in which they offer the listener spaces to pause and reflect. Instant easy-listening the album is not. But the deeper you dig, the richer the findings.


Tabor and Warren have, of course, been collaborating fruitfully since the 1980s, but Ballamy is newer to the fold, completing the trio after appearing on Tabor's 2005 release At the Wood’s Heart. The fruits of the group’s labour were first released on their self-titled debut album – a 2006 live performance finally issued by the great ECM label in 2013. From its artwork to its content, Nightfall feels like a complement to, and extension of, that record. (Th title comes from Edward Thomas’s poem “In Memoriam (Easter 1915)”: “The flowers left thick at nightfall in the wood/This Eastertide call into mind the men,/Now far from home, who, with their sweetness should/Have gathered them and will do never again.”) 

From the first spare opening note, Ballamy, Warren and Tabor continue to bring out the best in each other; their combination of elements – metropolitan jazz/classical stylings wedded to songs of tradition (mostly drawn from Somerset sources this time) – proves, once again, intoxicating. The group’s distilled approach, in which every note counts, doesn’t result in austerity: instead, there’s a stealth sensuality to the record, evident in Warren’s lithe and rhythmic piano work, in Ballamy’s billowing, shadowing sax playing, and in the commanding intensity of Tabor’s magnificent vocals.

As on the first album, the opening track here is from Robbie Burns’s pen: this time the venerable “Auld Lang Syne”, pleasingly defamilarised with a subtly altered tune, the song is shifted from its usual employment as a hearty singalong to an intimate, deeply personal expression. The misty ambience conjured on “On Berrow Sands,” would have fitted comfortably on Tabor’s great sea-themed album Ashore, the track revolving around the hypnotic, trancelike repetitions of the gulls’ warning to sailors. There’s a similar attention to atmosphere on the captivatingly languid “The Shepherd and His Dog” on which an otherworldly arrangement renders an everyday pastoral scene mystical and mysterious: a passage from Hardy as directed by Ingmar Bergman.

The album’s centrepiece is a thrillingly dramatic and powerful rendering of “The Manchester Angel”. The song starts off looking like it’s going to be about a faithless soldier’s seduction of “a pretty young doxy” but twists into a tale of war as separator. Tabor delivers a series of negations with stunning power, and Ballamy’s sax soars with the heroine’s resolution. And I’ve never heard a better version of “The Cuckoo”, the song treated to a twinkling, delicate arrangement that does the floating verses ample justice – as intimations of Love Gone Wrong are offset by the birds’ recipe for happiness: “we are single and free”.

The more contemporary material – including two terrific instrumental duets composed by Ballamy and Warren - also compels. A biting “You Don’t Know What Love Is” is directed inwards and outwards in just the right way. Wistful sax and piano re-purpose Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright”, as Tabor’s vocals shift through irony, scorn, amusement and acceptance.  Personally I could live without another version of Sondheim/Bernstein’s West Side Story warhorse “Somewhere” (which closes the album), but Tabor’s control and dramatic power succeed in bringing some freshness to the piece.

That’s true of all the tracks here, in fact. In a cluttered, pushy, snap judgement-dependent culture, Nightfall captivates by slowing us down, giving us room to breathe, making us listen closely and thereby experience these songs afresh. It's a glorious record.