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 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.”

That gave Ballamy the ability to play with anyone. He seems to thrive on his eclectic musical life. Nowadays he is a respected figure on the UK scene, with an international reputation and a contract with the prestigious ECM label. As well as his own groups, which he juggles happily from one tour to the next, he writes music for films and pens a witty agony uncle column, In the Saxophonist’s Chair, for Jazz UK magazine.

Ireland-bound with Quercus
Next week he arrives in Ireland with Quercus as part of the National Concert Hall’s Tradition Now festival at the Pepper Canister Church. The trio’s debut album last year was rapturously received by many a jaded critic (including me), and the show has sold out. Their repertoire is culled mostly from the English folk canon that Tabor has made her own, and Ballamy modestly points to the singer’s authentic delivery as the special ingredient in the group’s sound.

“She lives it, you know. I’ve been in her sitting room gathered round the piano, and we’re all wearing woolly jumpers because it’s cold, and she gives it the same feeling in a rehearsal as she gives in a gig. It chills your wee,” he adds with a grin.

Just a week later, Ballamy returns to Ireland for a tour with his Little Radio project, featuring the button accordionist Stian Carstensen. The two met backstage at a Human Chain gig and found that they shared a wide-ranging repertoire – they are likely to play any tune from Vaughan-Williams to Teddy Bear’s Picnic .

“For me the currency is the nuance and the detail, it’s not the fireworks. It’s about trying to find music that makes you feel alive – music that you feel invited to play or compelled to be part of.

“I quite like the idea of drawing people in,” he adds quietly. “I don’t like playing loud. Generally, I think six out of 10 is plenty.”

Quercus play the Pepper Canister Church, Dublin on Saturday. Little Radio play Garter Lane, Waterford (February 1), then tour nationwide.

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