She may have won this year's BBC Jazz Award for best vocalist, yet Christine Tobin was not, ostensibly at least, the main attraction in Radioplay, which just completed its October, 2008 run at London's Lyric theatre following an earlier incarnation at the Vortex last year. Rather, with guitarist Phil Robson and bassist Dave Whitford, her job was to provide a live soundtrack to a frequently surreal one-man show from a gentleman named Ed Gaughan.
"It's a comedy play about the history of radio in America," Tobin explained afterwards, cigarette in one hand, glass of wine in the other. "It's about emigration as well, an Irish man moving to Cornwall and to New York. And it travels through time."
Sitting somewhere between theatre and stand-up comedy, this storyalready bizarre enoughwas then framed within a grand narrative of a modern day overnight coach journey. The reason it appears on this site, however, is that on top of all this, Radioplay was also about the history of jazz, at least in a Wyntonesque ain't-nothing-after-1959 sense. Accordingly, jazz informed much of the humor. At one point, Gaughan performed "very, very gentle karate" on a giant computer as part of an attempt to appropriate the voice of Chet; instead, he was cursed with that of Jamie Cullum, that "piano-bashing little posh twat."
It's hard to work out whether the crowd was comprised more of thespians, comedy fans or jazz freaks; although perhaps the lines were as blurred in the stalls as they were on the stage. Gaughan guested with the trio on both vocals and guitarapparently he used to be one of Robson's pupils, trivia fansand Tobin had to deliver some straight, non-sung lines too.
Still, it's the jazz side that will presumably most interest readers of this site, and the main thing to report is that not only was Tobin in predictably fine voice, she was also working through an unusual choice of material. Whereas her last album, Secret Life Of A Girl (Babel, 2008) saw Tobin tackling her own compositions along with Leonard Cohen and Rufus Wainwright covers, here (again alongside some original material) she was singing some of the most classic standards in the real book, including "I Fall In Love Too Easily," "Sophisticated Lady" and "On The Sunny Side Of The Street." Was this a big shift for her?
"I know all those songs," she shrugged, "even though I don't often do them. If you decide to be a jazz musician or singer, you learn all the standards. I still do gigs where I do only standards, but they're not the real advertised ones. I just have that repertoire; it's like learning the language."
Interestingly, however, her treatment of one of those standards, Charlie Mingus' "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat," betrayed the influence of someone from outside the traditional jazz canon. Her vocal was immediately reminiscent of the version on Joni Mitchell's 1979 Elektra Mingus album, whichdespite featuring several tunes by the eponymous bassist and composer, and featuring jazz royalty including Jaco Pastorius, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock and Pete Erskineis often overlooked by purists.
"Well, that was the first record that got me into jazz really," she agreed, noticeably more comfortable talking about other peoples' music than her own. "I'd heard some Joni Mitchell albums at a friend's and I thought, 'Wow, I must go and buy a Joni record.' And Mingus was new out so I bought that, and I thought, 'Shit, I've never heard music like that before, I must check out this Charles Mingus.' I went out and bought Ah Um (Columbia, 1959). Then someone said, 'You should check out Charlie Parker,' and 'Have you heard Billie Holiday?' And then I heard that Billie used to be influenced by Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong, and so I checked them out... That's the start of me and jazz."
Seven albums later, that relationship is perhaps stronger than ever: though she listens to a broad range of music, she says that jazz remains the bedrock. She also feels, rightly, that her voice has matured over the years ("like a good cheese," she laughed). "You just get more comfortable in your own skin. I think I've reached the point where all the bits are slotting into place."
This boded wellnot just for the remainder of Radioplay, but for her two shows coming in November's London Jazz Festival: the opening concert at the Barbican, and then a "proper" gig at Ronnie Scott's four days later. For this, she'll be back by a six-piece band comprising Robson and Whitford from Radioplay, plus Liam Noble (piano), Kate Shortt (cello), Simon Lea (drums) and Thebe Lipere (percussion).
"This is the best band I've ever had," she enthused, by way of conclusion. "I mean, I've always worked with really good musicians, but this is the best combination. It's the first time I don't really have to explain things. We've just got the music really right and I feel it's communicating at its best."
Christine Tobin, Secret Life Of A Girl (Babel, 2008)
Christine Tobin, Christine Tobin's Romance and Revolution (Babel, 2004)
Christine Tobin, You Draw the Line (Babel, 2003)
Christine Tobin, Deep Song (Babel, 2000)
Christine Tobin, House Of Women (Babel, 1998)
Christine Tobin, Yell of the Gazelle (Babel, 1996)
Christine Tobin, Aililiu (Babel, 1995)
Photo Credit Helena Dornellas