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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1180

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June Tabor: A Quiet Eye
by George Graham

(Green Linnet 3129 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 01/05/2000)

Since the 1960s, the English folk scene has given rise to some remarkable women vocalists, including the late Sandy Denny, as well as Maddy Prior, Jacqui McShee, Linda Thompson, Norma Waterson and more recently Kate Rusby. One of the most distinctive voices to have emerged from the scene is June Tabor, who has just released her latest recording, approximately her 13th, called A Quiet Eye.

June Tabor first came to the attention of American audiences in the mid-1970s though a joint album she did with Steeleye Span singer Maddy Prior called Silly Sisters. Since then, Ms. Tabor has been releasing a diverse series of recordings, both under her own name, and in combination with others, including a couple with guitarist Martin Simpson, at least two with the folk-rock group The Oyster Band, and a joint album with harpist Savourna Stevenson. But it is her solo recordings that have most effectively highlighted her instantly memorable voice -- a low dusky alto with not a very wide range, but with astonishing control and a style that combines an outwardly cool, almost detached sound sometimes hinting at jazz, with subtle inflection born of traditional British Isles folk that can be arrestingly powerful.

Ms. Tabor got her start singing more conventional American style folk songs with some of the more ornamented vocal techniques traditional for the style. But while a student at Oxford, she began associating with a group of musicians where a more simple, unadorned style was more appropriate. And that stayed with her, becoming her signature, a direct style, free from vibrato that relies on her phrasing and subtle inflection to create music, that like the best of her compatriots, can sound as if she is speaking directly from the ages.

Not known as a much of a songwriter, Ms. Tabor has drawn on a rather wide variety of material in her career, including traditional folk songs, pieces by her contemporaries, and material written for her by the likes of Elvis Costello. Most of her own recordings have been done with a minimal, even stark accompaniment. A Quiet Eye represents a change -- she gets together with members of the British group The Creative Jazz Orchestra. In the fall of 1998, with some grant money from the British lottery, a joint tour was put together with new arrangements written by Ms. Tabor's long-time musical associate and pianist Hew Warren. This recording grew out of that collaboration, and it was produced by another long-time associate of Ms. Tabor, John Ravenhall, who gets some amazing performances from the gathered musicians. Ravenhall usually records Ms. Tabor live with the other musicians, adding to the organic quality of the performance, though such a thing might not achieve the kind of musical perfection with a lesser singer.

A jazz group might seem on the surface like an odd choice for a vocalist like Ms. Tabor, but Hew Warren comes from a jazz background, and in 1989, Warren and Ms. Tabor did an album of jazz standards called Some Other Time, which turned out to be a fine recording. Despite the 11 members of the jazz ensemble providing the accompaniment, there is only one track that could be considered a jazz song. Instead, the music is very much in the English folk vein, a mix of traditional pieces, some quite old, given interesting and sometimes unexpected arrangements, and some more contemporary material, including two songs by Fairport Convention founder Richard Thompson. The makeup of the ensemble is also rather distinctive. Most jazz big bands emphasize the saxophone section. This group is mostly a brass ensemble, with trombones, French horn and tuba, but no trumpets. There are two reed players, on clarinet as often as not, along with cello, viola, double bass and a little percussion. The arrangements, with the darker, lower-register instruments, are a nice match for Ms. Tabor's famously smoky alto voice. And despite the presence of the larger ensemble, A Quiet Eye usually has an intimate quality, like Ms. Tabor's other recordings, the better to frame the singer's subtle vocals. Another distinctive aspect of this recording is that Ms. Tabor's delivery seems more emotional and expressive than in the past.

The album begins auspiciously with the traditional ballad The Gardener, taken from the classic book of folk songs compiled by Child. Like many of the songs on this album, the subject is unrequited love. In this case, it's the woman rejecting unwanted advances. The performance is powerful, with Ms. Tabor's strong vocals blending with an ensemble accompaniment that sounds quite foreboding. <<>>

More upbeat in sound, but with a bittersweet message is a contemporary song by Maggie Holland, A Place Called England, which combines both pessimism and optimism in a kind of search for home remembered in midst of the way England is today. <<>>

There are two consecutive Richard Thompson songs on the CD. The first, done as a medley with a pretty instrumental called Out of Winter is Thompson's Waltzing's for Dreamers. Ms. Tabor is in fine form on this one, though sometimes the lead tenor sax gets in the way. <<>>

The other Richard Thompson composition is The Pharoah, a fairly well-known song among Thompson fans. The arrangement here is striking. The song, with its dark, ruminating mood, is an excellent choice for Ms. Tabor, while the arrangement almost has the quality of a film score. The result is fascinating. <<>>

The jazz standard on the CD is I'll Be Seeing You, which Ms. Tabor points out, was a song that became a theme for couples parted by war. While the track is a bit out keeping in style from the rest of the of the album, the performance is quite nice, including the sparing use of the large ensemble. The accompaniment is mainly Warren's piano. <<>>

Another traditional song of unfulfilled love is I Will Put My Ship in Order, an interesting piece in which the male protagonist sails his ship to his lover, waits, then gives up and leaves before she can get to the door. The arrangement works out especially well here. <<>>

One of two absorbing, lengthy tracks is a medley of The Writing of Tiperary and It's a Long Way to Tiperary. The first is a contemporary piece by Bill Caddick, providing a vignette of the Edwardian era, just before World War I, and the circumstances behind the writing of the famous song from that the war. <<>>

The accompaniment is dispensed with entirely for a remarkable acapella version of Ewan MacColl's famous The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face, made pop hit in in this country in the 1970s by Roberta Flack. <<>>

The album ends with its other lengthy suite, based on a traditional folk song, known on both side of the Atlantic The Water Is Wide. The ensemble is used quite effectively for this atmospheric treatment of the piece. <<>>

June Tabor's new CD A Quiet Eye which was released to great acclaim in England last summer and is now available in the US, is her first in over two years and stands as another highlight in the career of this very remarkable singer. The large ensemble, accompanying her marks a change from the usually intimate musical settings of her previous solo work, but the arrangements by Hew Warren, work exceptionally well, something that was no doubt aided by Warren's long-time association with Ms. Tabor. John Ravenhall's production is also first-rate, with the combination of the performances, arrangements and sound all proving to be very tasteful and thoroughly compatible with Ms. Tabor's one-of-a-kind style. The only quibble I would have is that the sax soloists might not be up to the level of some of the best American jazz musicians.

Sonically, the album is also deserving of a grade "A." The use of audio space through reverberation is very effective and varies by song to fit the complexion of each piece. Most of the instruments, and especially Ms. Tabor's vocals, are very well-recorded, though on several tracks, I was a bit disappointed in the sound of the piano, which could have been richer, and occasionally sounds close to an electronic piano. The dynamic range is also respectable, though again the piano sometimes sounds unnaturally compressed.

The English folk scene was a fairly obscure trend in the US when it appeared more than 30 years ago. It remains so, but continues to attract fans after all these years though the work of some outstanding performers. June Tabor is one of the most exceptional voices the scene has produced, and her new CD ranks as one of the best of her career. If you've never heard June Tabor before, this is an excellent way to get to know this voice you'll not soon forget.

(c) Copyright 2000 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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