Christine Tobin

The Red Lion, Warstone Lane, Birmingham

Vocalist Christine Tobin – with Phil Robson on guitar and Dave Whitford on double bass – was presenting her programme of Leonard Cohen songs. It’s a set list taken from her album released earlier this year, A Thousand Kisses Deep, and into it she throws a few other songs as the mood takes her.

I have written before about the Cohen material on the album (review here) and about hearing this material in performance (blog post here) so I will try not to repeat myself and instead focus on a couple of aspects of this thoroughly fine night presented by Birmingham Jazz.

Firstly, the standards. In addition to a Carole King tune from Christine’s Tapestry Unravelled album in response to a special audience request, and a reading of Bobby Gentry’s Ode To Billie Joe (lovely country-tinged guitar from Phil Robson here which brought to mind not only Bill Frisell but also the UK’s greatest contribution to Country music, Albert Lee), Christine interspersed Lovely Len’s songs with a few from the American Songbook.

They included Jerome Kern’s I’m Old Fashioned, Billy Strayhorn’s Sophisticated Lady and Billy Eckstine’s I Want To Talk About You.

Now, Christine Tobin, for  very understandable reasons – they have become a bit of a cliché for female vocalists, and in any case, why not cover material from one’s own lifetime rather than one’s parents’? – has avoided the well-worn path of singing standards, at least on her albums. (Looking back it’s interesting to see how Cohen has been a feature of her repertoire, along with occasional forays into The Beach Boys songbook, all the way through, while jazz standards are generally confined to her 2000 album Deep Song).

But the thing is, she sings standards bloody beautifully, and Phil and Dave play them bloody beautifully too. Partly it’s the fact that Christine chooses songs that appear to mean something to her – she is not going to sing a lyric she doesn’t believe in – so they sound like genuine and original expressions, not some “cover” from the archive; partly it’s that she has that richness of tone and timbre that, while being all her own, also share something with Sarah Vaughan and Betty Carter – at least to my ears. Sophisticated Lady seems to me a challenge just to sing properly; to sing it this well takes something really special.

The other thing worth mentioning is the general vibe of a Birmingham Jazz gig. The upstairs room of The Red Lion has its challenges – it doesn’t have a piano, for example, because the pub don’t want one up there, and the noise from the downstairs juke box can be intrusive – but it’s also very special because it is filled – jam-packed on Friday – with real enthusiasts for this music. Feel the love? Yep, you can in this room.

Now, in the recent discussions about the impact of the national body Jazz Services not having its Arts Council funding renewed, pianist Liam Noble (a musician who BJ supporters can’t hear in The Red Lion due to its lack of a proper piano) said “a lot of jazz works in smaller venues much better”. And he is absolutely right.

A lot of jazz just sounds better up close, and that is what you get at a Birmingham Jazz gig (and in many other upstairs rooms at pubs or wherever, away from the concert halls). As Christine mentioned on Friday night to the listeners a foot or two from her: “this feels like playing a private party or a small wedding or something”.

Putting quality jazz on in a room that holds 60 or so people is a difficult thing to do financially, and it’s why organisations such as Birmingham Jazz will feel so keenly the demise of Jazz Services and its touring grants to bands which helped these small clubs to not necessarily balance the books but rather not operate at too much of a loss. Which is why I fully support the fight for such support to continue, though whether Jazz Services or some other organisation is the facilitator I don’t much mind (and please don’t waste your time haranguing me for that last phrase – we’re all on the same side, really).

Getting back to the Christine Tobin trio’s gig – it was superb music played in a setting that enhanced it fully. Thank you to a great band and thank you to a great little organisation worthy of our support.

Categories: Live review

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