On Thursday evening, after storm Doris had raged all day, I turned up for the opening event of this year’s Liverpool Jazz Festival to find that Sons of Kemet had been stranded in London by the suspension of all services out of Euston. However, by Sunday lunchtime everything was balmy in the meteorological department when I returned to the Capstone to see saxophonist Iain Ballamy and pianist Huw Warren perform a remarkably eclectic set that embraced music from many genres, times and places.

Before the gig, I knew of Iain Ballamy’s music primarily through his duo recordings with Norwegian keyboardist and conjurer of ambient electronica, Thomas Strønen, made for ECM under the moniker Food. On eight albums that have featured a variety of guest artists, Iain Ballamy’s melodic and lyrical sax float above electronic soundscapes and grooves from Strønen. Their most recent, Quiet Inlet, possesses a kind of quiet beauty.

Huw Warren was more of an unknown quantity. Three years ago I listened fleetingly to Quercus, an album that showcased the vocals of English folk singer June Tabor – because it featured Ballamy’s sax. At the time I didn’t take in the name of the pianist who completed the trio: it was Huw Warren.

Huw Warren and Iain Ballamy
Huw Warren and Iain Ballamy

These are both examples of how the two musicians operate: working in a series of concurrent projects (Quercus and Food are just two where their interests overlap) which reflect their shared love of music from many disciplines. The programme at the Capstone concert reflected their eclectic interests, including pieces that spanned both genres and continents – ranging from classical works by Chopin and Bach to pieces by an eccentric Brazilian composer and their own original compositions.

Iain Ballamy and pianist Huw Warren at the Capstone (photo by Penny Lane Jazz ,via Facebook)
Iain Ballamy and pianist Huw Warren at the Capstone (photo by Penny Lane Jazz ,via Facebook)

In a 75 minute set the duo played a ‘death march’ by Chopin (much re-arranged by Warren and Ballamy), a Bach piece popularised by Jacques Loussier, a composition by the late jazz pianist John Taylor, and three numbers by the Brazilian composer and multi-instrumentalist Hermeto Pascoal. Introducing the first piece, Ballamy admitted that they both had ‘a bit of a man-crush’ Pascoal, who had composed more than 2,500 numbers, many of them quite mad. I later discovered that one of Warren’s projects is Trio Brasil, dedicated to performing Brazilian music, particularly compositions by Pascoal:

I first heard the music of Hermeto more than 25 years ago and fell in love with it instantly. It has continued to fascinate and entrance me ever since, and a small part of the spirit of Hermeto has permeated all my work to date.

Ballamy has a distinctive voice on saxophone, heard at its most lyrical on the duo’s rendition of one of the numbers from the Quercus album with June Tabor. They took George Butterworth’s setting of AE Houseman’s 1896 poem ‘The Lads in Their Hundreds’ (from A Shropshire Lad) and gave us one of the highlights of this set, with Ballamy’s saxophone as plaangent as Tabor’s vocal on the CD.

On other numbers, both pianist and saxophonist played with fiery, spiky abandon, Ballamy in the words of one reviewer, ‘scuttling around his instrument with idiosyncratic, fleet-fingered whimsy.’ This approach was highlighted on one one of his own compositions, ‘Strawberry,’ written a decade or more ago ‘in Guildford Lido’ and intended as part of an as yet unfinished fruit salad suite (a reminder of Ballamy’s work with the Scandinavian ensemble Food, whose albums and tracks tend to have titles such as ‘Tofu’, ‘Mushroom’ and ‘Pie’).

Indeed, another Ballamy composition played in the set- ‘Floater’ – comes from the Organic & GM Food album: Ballamy introduced it as ‘a folkish tune composed in a drunken haze in Oslo and hurriedly scrawled on a paper napkin.’ Another Ballamy composition was described as having originated as a commission for the Manchester Literary and Music festivals a few years ago – a collaboration with the Irish poet Matthew Sweeney that involved a long and complicated story about a monkey.

For their encore, the pair performed another number by Hermeto Pascoal, ‘Harmonia sem Chronologia,’ bringing to a close an enoyably varied and quirky set.

Here, from YouTube is a video of the duo playing at Bangor University in March 2012:

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