English folk music and American jazz are about as different as musical idioms can get. One depends on strict ideas about song structure and adheres to traditions passed down for generations; the other, by definition, is a freewheeling, improvised form that leaves plenty of room for individual expression.
If these two genres share anything, it’s a mutual affection for good tunes that originate not in the present-day, but in some past era. Of course, in English traditional music, the songs are often much, much older yet stick fairly closely to the originals. Whether they’re professing undying love or retelling the tale of a shipwreck, the great English folk tunes have been passed through the decades and the centuries with reverential care, as if maintaining an important historic document.
Jazz, meanwhile, is all about rearranging tunes to fit an artist’s personality or a band’s strengths. Compositions provide a melody or a chord structure for an instrumentalist or a band to return to after they’ve gone off to establish their individuality.
That said, June Tabor’s new A Quiet Eye album is remarkable in part because of the way she merges these two distinctly divergent musical camps. On her latest record, the veteran English folksinger teams up with an 11-piece jazz band, the London-based Creative Jazz Orchestra. The result is a stunning collection of English and American songs that underscores the strengths of both genres.
Because Tabor started out as an a cappella singerthe most traditional of all approaches to folk musicit may seem like heresy that she’s now fronting an avant-garde brass section and interpreting sentimental Broadway fare like Sammy Fain’s ”I’ll Be Seeing You.“ In truth, though, Tabor has matured much like a painter or a serious actor, taking on new challenges while staying true to a certain inner vision. Her love for emotionally stirring lyrics has remained steadfast, but she’s grown as an interpreter, acquiring new vocal inflections and musical textures to help her get across the underlying feeling of a song.
Over the years, Tabor has demonstrated her musical adventurousness while staying true to her roots. She has collaborated with fellow folksinger Maddy Prior, with tradition-based bands like Steeleye Span and the Oyster Band, and with everyone from the Velvet Underground to the Pogues to Elvis Costello (who originally wrote ”All This Useless Beauty“ for Tabor). In the ’90s, she’s moved beyond acoustic music to create an ambitious chamber-folk sound that merges traditional songs with the expansive musical possibilities of jazz and cabaret music.
Tabor started exploring this territory on 1992’s Angel Tiger and on 1997’s Aleyn. But it’s with the new A Quiet Eye that she truly puts it all together. To American rock fans, her music may sound reminiscent of Marianne Faithfull, but Tabor doesn’t convey the melancholy burnout of a romantic victim. She burns with the power of a fiercely impassioned, regally self-confident crusader. Even on heartbreaking songs, she’s not asking you to share her pain; instead, she’s cursing betrayal or seeking to stir people from their complacency.
Her arrangements bask in the dark amber glow of a grand piano, the doleful whisper of a viola, moody washes of reeds, and sharp blasts of brass. The music serves as a dramatic backdrop to her smoky alto, which seethes with anger or passion, depending on the subject.
As for the material, it ranges from rousing traditional tunes like ”I Will Put My Ship in Order“ and ”It’s a Long Way to Tipperary“ to the tender ache of Richard Thompson’s ”Waltzing’s for Dreamers.“ The album’s highlight is Tabor’s torrid take on ”A Place Called England,“ a song that’s both a patriotic anthem and a scathing indictment of capitalism and modern life.
The song begins with her exploring what she loves about her homeland, but mostly she sees meadows and rivers buried in the sooty wasteland ruled by industrialists ”who only think that England’s a place to park their car.“ Still, she sees hope in the marigolds that struggle to grow along railroad tracks, and before long she’s rousing famed English warrior kings of lore, encouraging them to mount horses and draw swords, to give this unique sliver of earth back to those who appreciate its natural beauty. Flush with unrestrained righteousness, she crows, ”For England is not flag or Empire, it is not money and it is not blood. It’s limestone gorge and granite fell, it’s Wealden clay and Severn mud. It’s blackbird singing from the may tree...and English earth beneath your nails!“
It’s a glorious musical moment, and a rare one in today’s commerce-driven music business. It’s also only one of many reasonssome brave, most of them beautifulthat Tabor’s album needs to be heard and celebrated by listeners of all kinds.
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