Punkt 07 - Kristiansand, Norway - Day Two, August 30, 2007
British vocalist June Tabor has been on the scene since the mid-1970s, bringing an often dark outlook to traditional folk music with albums including her classic Abyssinians (Shanachie, 1983). Intense, and with a nuanced delivery that's paradoxically powerful in its sheer understatement, Tabor has, on occasion, experimented with contexts outside the tradition, liberally mixing traditional folk tunes with farther afield material by Duke Ellington and Elvis Costello (who wrote "All This Useless Beauty" for Tabor). Quercus (Oaks), a collaboration with saxophonist Iain Ballamy and pianist Huw Warren, is another distinctive milestone in a career that's had more than its share of highlights.
Ballamy is well-known in Norway and to Punkt, having played at the festival in 2006 with the reduced duo version of Food, featuring percussionist/ electronics artist Thomas Strønen. He worked with Tabor on her 2005 Topic album, At the Wood's Heart, one of her best albums in recent years, and while the emphasis was on tradition, Ballamy's distinctive ability to mine a melody and find new ways of variation made the evolution towards Quercus a logical one.
Warren is an adventurous player who is as comfortable inside the piano as he is out. A mainstay on the British scene, he's collaborated with artists including singer Clare Martin, guitarist John Parricelli and American violinist Mark Feldman. His musical relationship with Tabor goes back to the late 1980s on Aqaba (Shanachie, 1988). He has worked with Ballamy in other contexts, but came together with the saxophonist and Tabor on At the Wood's Heart which was, no doubt, the place where the seed for Quercus was sown. He possesses a vividly lyrical sense, yet he's also capable of seamlessly shifting a song between its inside essence and outside potential.
It's Quercus' intriguing allegiance to tradition, while at the same time stretching the music's boundaries harmonically, that makes his such a compelling group. Tabor began the set alone, age making her voice even deeper and richer than it's always been. Her unparalleled ability to evoke great emotion with the slightest of inflection, the subtlest of lilt, the barest hold of a note, is uncanny. There's no grand melisma here: only the pursuit of the song's deepest meaning. She is, however, deeply entrenched in the tradition, so that when Warren entered with more ethereal reharmonization of the melody, joined soon after by Ballamy, the true identity of Quercus emerged.
Perhaps the most overtly jazz-centric group on the program (at least in the more conventional definition), it's the surprisingly successful meeting of two seemingly disparate musical worlds that makes Quercus so unique. With Tabor as a solid anchor, Warren and Ballamy are free to take the materialranging from centuries-old songs to World War I compositions and originals from both Ballamy and Warrenwherever their muse might lead, always with the knowledge that Tabor will bring things back to the core essence of the song.
Tabor is an intense and quietly charismatic performer but, again, not in an overtly dramatic fashion. Her introduction to the musical adaptation of A.E. Houseman's World War I poem, "The lads in their hundreds," made clear just how deeply she gets inside the words, and equally the freedom that Warren and Ballamy have to explore where a simple melody can be taken. It's difficult, perhaps even foolhardy, mid-way through the first day of programming, to call this one of the festival's highlights, but it's certainly an early contender.
Entering the Alpha Room, where German sampler/keyboardist/producer J. Peter Schwalm, Punkt mainstay/ guitarist Eivind Aarset and "video guitarist" Daniel Kluge were deconstructing Quercus' set, the immediate impression was of how far from its origins a piece of music could be taken. Bird sounds and other ambient sounds filled the room as Shwalm and Aarset began to develop a textural approach to Tabor's looped voice.
As the music began to coalesce into more defined shape and defined rhythmic pulses emerged, Kluge began to use his instrument to improvise with images recorded at the Quercus show. While it looked like a guitar, it was, in fact, a controller that allowed Kluge manipulation of whatever images were being displayed on a large screen behind the trio, as well as the ability to affect speed and direction of motion, creating staggered visual rhythms that synchronized beautifully with the aural landscape created by Schwalm and Aarset.
Aarset's ability to transform the guitar into a controller of a seemingly infinite multiplicity of textures remains unequalled. His mastery of the array of effects on a table in front of him and at his feet, and his intimate knowledge of how all these devices interact, allows him to fashion new sounds on the fly. The soundscapes he creates are as freely improvisational as those by any guitarist focused on more conventional concepts of melody, rhythm and harmony, although these are also a part of what he does.
Schwalm's ability to grab pieces of the Quercus performance and reprocess them into new shapes while, at the same time, adding his own pulses and sonic ideas, made him an ideal partner for Aarset. Together with Kluge, Schwalm and Aarset delivered what will, no doubt, go down as one of the most successful remixes of Punkt 07.