Great vision: Iain Ballamy’s all-seeing saxophone
Ballamy is a man of many talents, from his time with an anarcho musical commune to reviving English folk songs and writing an agony uncle column
Iain Ballamy: ‘I think of them as different sides of something, rather than different somethings. But the people who like to bag music up and put it into genres struggle with that.’
Quercus: Iain Ballamy, singer June Tabor and pianist Huw Warren
Iain Ballamy is a quiet man, not a bit like a 46A. However, in common with the bus to Dún Laoghaire, the acclaimed English saxophonist is apt to keep you waiting. Then, just when you’ve given up, two arrive at once – in this case, two genre-defying tours in as many weeks that will blow ears from Dublin to Clifden wide open.
Given the diversity of Ballamy’s projects – from Quercus, his much-lauded trio with folk legend June Tabor and pianist Huw Warren; and Little Radio, his jukebox duo with accordionist Stian Carstensen; to Food, his trailblazing duo with electronica wizard Thomas Stronen – one might be forgiven for imagining some kind of split personality.
But the genial Ballamy, who rose to prominence as a founding member of the Loose Tubes big band in the mid-1980s, protests that they’re all part of the same thing. “I think of them as different sides of something, rather than different somethings,” he says mildly, “but the people who like to bag music up and put it into genres, they struggle with that. People want to know what something is so they can tie a ribbon round it and put in a box.”
Back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when everyone else was listening to punk, Ballamy was into Stan Getz. Then he encountered the community of players who would form the nucleus of Loose Tubes, and was relieved to discover he wasn’t alone. More an anarcho-syndicalist commune than a band, Loose Tubes, which also included the keyboardist Django Bates, was the fertile seedbed from which would spring a new UK jazz scene.
“I think there was definitely a vibe within Loose Tubes. We didn’t want to wear suits and have music stands with the name of the band and things like that. It was more ramshackle and feral than that. And because it was a co-operative, it gave rise to a lot of talking and a lot of debate – it was quite a politicised band. These were the yuppie years, with Thatcher and apartheid, so we had plenty to rage against.”
A visionary project in Germany
Ballamy has remained associated with the mercurial Bates and his band Human Chain to this day, but Loose Tubes was also the beginning of a more far-ranging adventure for the saxophonist. He remembers in particular a visionary project in Germany during the early 1990s.
“It was called Grenzüberschreitungen,” says Ballamy. “It means ‘border crossings’. You would have something like a South African singer, a great big American bass player, two Indian percussionists, and an English saxophone player, and we’d all be thrown into this youth centre for a week – it was like, ‘you’re musicians, here’s food’ – and at the end of it, we had to do a concert. We’d literally have to prepare a programme from scratch in a week.”