by Ian Mann
November 13, 2013
Tobin and the trio drew their listeners into the world of Leonard Cohen in an absorbing performance that held the audience spellbound.
Christine Tobin, “A Thousand Kisses Deep”, Black Mountain Jazz, Swan Hotel, Abergavenny, 10/11/2013.
Since moving to the UK in the 1980’s Irish born vocalist Christine Tobin has become a significant presence on the British music scene. A talented songwriter in her own right Tobin is also a superb interpreter of the songs of others with a particular feel for the music and lyrics of Leonard Cohen.
She first came to prominence as vocalist for the jazz/folk crossover group Lammas, led by saxophonist Tim Garland, before developing a solo career which saw seven critically acclaimed albums being released under her own name on the Babel label between 1995 and 2008. A move to Trail Belle Records first produced “Tapestry Unravelled”, her re-interpretation of Carole King’s classic 1970 album “Tapestry” in a pared down duo format with pianist Liam Noble. Next came the widely acclaimed “Sailing To Byzantium”, Tobin’s musical settings of the poet William Butler Yeats (1865-1939).
Today’s Sunday afternoon show was the third time I’ve seen Tobin singing live and for me this was easily the best performance so far. I’d previously seen her at the 2010 Cheltenham Jazz Festival presenting her “Tapestry Unravelled” project in the company of Liam Noble and recall feeling slightly disappointed that the duo didn’t de-construct King’s songs quite as radically as I’d imagined.
Two years later she brought “Sailing To Byzantium” to The Edge Arts Centre at Much Wenlock in Shropshire, a similarly classy and sophisticated performance, but I must admit that there were moments when I found the Yeats settings rather heavy going. Maybe it’s just a question of my preferring Cohen’s songs, I’ve always been a bit of a fan of Laughing Len so today’s show was right up my street.
As I mentioned in my introduction Tobin has always had an affinity for the songs of Leonard Cohen and she is currently engaged on a mammoth nationwide tour presenting his songs under the banner “A Thousand Kisses Deep”, a line drawn from a Cohen song. The tour, which continues until March 2014 encompasses everything from a prestigious London Jazz Festival appearance to gigs in pubs and rural parish halls and sees the singer joined by her trusted lieutenants Phil Robson on guitar and Dave Whitford on double bass. In the intimate setting of the upstairs function room of the Swan Hotel Tobin and the trio drew their listeners into the world of Leonard Cohen in an absorbing performance that held the audience spellbound. The attendance was in excess of sixty, a highly respectable turnout and everybody listened intently, hanging on every word and phrase written by Cohen and voiced by Tobin. I’ve been critical of the behaviour of some audience members at BMJ events recently but today everybody behaved impeccably, you could hear the proverbial pin drop. Very well done to all who were there.
Tobin’s choice of material covered songs from every phase of Cohen’s career and today’s set also included a couple of jazz standards plus interpretations of songs by Joni Mitchell, Bobbie Gentry and John Martyn. Tobin has always chosen her outside material carefully and virtually every song performed today was a classic of its kind, superbly interpreted by a world class trio. The jazz world has always treasured Tobin’s masterful vocal performances and it’s something of a surprise that she’s not more widely known among mainstream audiences, perhaps her choice of material to cover is just a little too challenging for full scale mass consumption. Robson , also her life partner, is a wonderfully versatile guitarist whose credits range from the BBC Big Band to jazz rock titans Partisans via a myriad variety of other projects of his own. Whitford, recently seen performing with Liam Noble’s Brother Face group, is similarly versatile and is one of the UK’s most skilful and reliable bass players.
The first set opened with a song by Cohen’s fellow Canadian Joni Mitchell, another favourite artist of many jazz performers. Mitchell’s song “The Priest” explored similar lyrical imagery to many of Cohen’s own songs, a mixture of the spiritual and the sexual, the sacred and profane. Tobin’s pure but soulful voice enunciated the lyric above Whitford’s rich bass undertow with Robson using the solid body of his lightly amplified electric guitar as an auxiliary percussion instrument. Robson was also featured as a soloist, his pithy, fluent, elegant single note lines a feature throughout the set.
Mitchell has recently celebrated her 70th birthday and Cohen himself will turn eighty in 2014. The first Cohen item proved to be “Dance Me To The End Of Love” from the Cohen album “Various Positions”, a song memorably covered by Madeleine Peyroux. Tobin’s version was just as fine and more overtly jazzy with the first of several excellent scat episodes. Robson also featured again underpinned by Whitford’s unerring bass pulse.
Next came “Thousand Kisses” itself, an excellent 21st century Cohen song that appears on the soundtrack of the 2002 Neil Jordan film “The Good Thief”. The lyric shows Cohen to be just as perceptive as ever, his poetic muse undimmed. There was a bluesy, soulful feel to this that allied to the cynicism of the lyrics sometimes reminded of the work of Steely Dan. This time the instrumental honours went to Whitford with a carefully crafted double bass solo.
Cohen’s songs lend themselves well to interpretations by the female voice. Jennifer Warnes 1986 album of Cohen songs “Famous Blue Raincoat” was a considerable critical and commercial success and even helped to give Cohen’s career a boost during the lean years of the 1980’s. The lyric is written in the form of a letter and signs off “yours sincerely, L. Cohen” but its as inventive and image rich as anything else he’s written. Tobin’s version did full justice to Cohen’s words with Robson’s solo, a mix of fluid single note lines and jazzy chording, providing the instrumental interest.
The trio took a short break from the Cohen songbook to play the jazz standard “Old Devil Moon”, something of a Tobin favourite, which allowed her to demonstrate her formidable scatting abilities alongside instrumental solos by Robson and Whitford.
It was back to the Cohen canon for “Everybody Knows” from his timeless 1984 “comeback” album “I’m Your Man”. The world weary lyrics are partly political comment, partly a scathing and cynical put down of an errant lover. Delivered with relish by Tobin lines like “everybody knows that the dice are loaded”, “everybody knows that the captain lied” and “the poor stay poor, the rich get rich” are still all too relevant. It’s also interesting that Cohen doesn’t shy away from simple repetition to make his points, his imagery may be rich and poetic but it’s also direct and effective.
The first set concluded with a song from an earlier vintage, a lovely version of “Hey That’s No Way To Say Goodbye” from the 1968 début album “Songs Of Leonard Cohen” with Whitford’s bass featuring strongly alongside Tobin’s voice.
Set two was prefaced by an anecdote by local resident Graham whose friend Jock Richards was in turn a friend of Cohen’s. The pair met in the early sixties when both were travelling and Richards later became Cohen’s driver when the latter’s recording career took off. This interesting Cohen story was one that probably even Tobin hadn’t heard before.
The music began with “Take This Waltz”, Cohen’s adaptation of Lorca with a typically classy Robson solo and with Tobin encouraging the audience to sing along on the “aye, aye, aye” refrain.
The response was impressive, a tribute to Tobin’s assured and easy going presenting style.
Going back to “Songs From A Room” the song “Story Of Isaac” was dark and unsettling with a muscular solo bass intro and with Robson coaxing ominous sounding effects from his instrument courtesy of his array of foot pedals. His fuzzed up chording then provided the backdrop for a Tobin scat episode.
The trio paused from the Cohen oeuvre to perform Bobbie Gentry’s enigmatic Southern saga “Ode To Billie Joe” with Tobin delivering a stunning “instrumental style” scat solo which took its toll on her voice. Previously she’d been sipping tea (just like Barbra Streisand she cheekily informed us). Now she asked for a glass of water to soothe her throat after “all that Howlin’ Wolf style vocalising”. This was was duly delivered before the trio tackled Cohen’s “You Know Who I Am” from the album “Songs From A Room”. In her introduction to the song Tobin revealed that she had first heard this song in the early 70’s on the CBS double album sampler (remember those) “Fill Your Head With Rock” and asked if any body else had a copy of that record. Two hands promptly went up in the air, I wonder who the other bloke was?
From the “I’m Your Man” album “Tower Of Song” was introduced by an improvised passage of solo bass from the excellent Whitford and Cohen’s masterful evocation of the ghosts of Hank Williams et al and of his own place in the musical pantheon was given wonderful voice by Tobin.
A second dip in to the jazz standards repertoire brought us Gershwin’s “Embraceable You”, this time with a coolly elegant solo introduction by Robson whose guitar blended beautifully with Tobin’s vocals on this essentially duo item with a further Robson solo complemented by Tobin’s scat vocal.
Appropriately it was back to the Cohen book to conclude the afternoon’s music. This time the trio really took liberties with Cohen’s work as they transformed “Suzanne” from a dirge into a celebration by way of jaunty Latin rhythms.
The audience, who once again had been as quiet as church mice throughout the second set now erupted in enthusiastic approval and having taken their initial bows the trio needed no further encouragement to pick up their instruments again for a well deserved encore. After a brief discussion they decided to perform a song by another highly distinctive performer, the late, great John Martyn. This was to be “Go Down Easy” from Martyn’s classic album “Solid Air”, a piece that allowed Robson and Whitford room to stretch out instrumentally alongside Tobin’s sultry vocals.
Tobin is a superb interpreter of songs and today she made every piece her own regardless of its author. She’s a true “story teller” as well as a singer of formidable technical abilities and in Robson and Whitford she has two accompanists that she can trust implicitly, brilliant technicians with a real feel for the music and with an instinctive rapport with the singer. This was a near faultless performance that bodes well for her London Jazz Festival appearance at the Purcell Room on 19th November. The core trio will be augmented by accordionist Huw Warren and percussionist Adriano Adewale and the support slot will be by singer Georgia Mancio, another popular visitor to BMJ earlier in 2013.
Today also renewed my admiration for Cohen’s song writing craft. Like Dylan and Waits his songs stand on their own, they don’t need the distinctive voice of their creator to do them justice and in Tobin’s hands they gained a new lease of life that was thoroughly convincing. Tobin intends to record the “Thousand Kisses” project during 2014 and the thought of an album featuring this material is an appealing prospect. In the meantime readers can catch up with Tobin’s busy touring schedule at http://www.christine-tobin.com