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Christine Tobin: Romancing the Radical

Chris May By

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The jazz audience can be quite conservative when it comes to singers. They seem to appreciate far-reaching work best if it's instrumental. With singers they head for more familiar territory
Brought up in Ireland, singer/songwriter Christine Tobin moved to London in '87. She gigged prolifically before forming her own band and starting to record in the mid '90s. She is today one of the most highly regarded musicians on the British cutting edge, rooted in jazz but roaming far beyond it. One prominent commentator has described her as "the Bjork of Euro jazz," and Tobin's willingness to go her own way, schooled in the tradition but ultimately independent of it, marks her out as a rare and singular talent.

In '95 Tobin began a continuing relationship with Oliver Weindling's adventurous Babel label, a stylistic free-fire zone which hosts some of the UK's most risk-taking and significant artists. She has recorded six magnificent and critically acclaimed albums for the label, with a seventh presently in gestation.

With the exception of '00's Deep Song, which was recorded in New York with drummer Billy Hart, and features material from the Great American Songbook, Tobin's albums are built around her own original work. She writes wonderful, quirky, utterly idiosyncratic melodies, full of unexpected twists and turns and tastes of other cultures, and lyrics which work as well as on the printed page as they come across live or on record. Her music has real depth and reveals more of itself with each repeated listening.

As a side-person, Tobin has worked with a broad sweep of cutting edge UK-based artists. Soon after arriving in London, she began gigging with Jean Toussaint, and has since recorded with such A-list innovators as Django Bates, Hans Koller, Tim Garland (in Lammas), Crass Agenda and Billy Jenkins, among many others.

Tobin's recently launched seven-piece band Big Deal features her regular collaborators Phil Robson (guitar), Liam Noble (piano), Dave Whitford (bass) and Thebe Lipere (percussion), plus the newly arrived Kate Shortt (cello) and Simon Lea (drums). She also works in trio, quartet and quintet line-ups featuring various permutations of these musicians.

Alongside her own performing, Tobin is a committed and resourceful facilitator on London's live jazz scene. She's involved with the governance of the artistically brave—and against all the odds, successful—Vortex club, and during '05 also presented weekly gigs in an upstairs room at the aptly named Progress Bar. The Thursday night performances featured many of the UK's most exciting and radical young talents, with a great atmosphere, and were frequently the highlight of the live music week. Very sadly, a change of ownership of the premises has ended the Progress Bar gigs—though Tobin will relish being able to concentrate more fully on her own singing and writing.

Not before time, Tobin is about to make her US debut. New Yorkers get a chance to see her live at Joe's Pub on January 11th, with a line-up which re-unites her with Billy Hart.

Tobin is a compelling and important artist, deserving of a bigger international audience, and if you can get along to Lafayette that night, you'll be glad you did....

All About Jazz: When can you first remember singing?

Christine Tobin: When I was about seven, in Dublin, where I'm from. It was mostly with amateur musical societies in local community venues and theatres. I was a bit of a show-off I think: I really enjoyed being onstage. But even though I was a child, I knew that what I was being asked to sing wasn't really what I wanted to sing. What I was doing felt like putting on the wrong size clothes. So I more or less abandoned singing when I was twelve and started getting interested in boys and all the normal teenage things.

I didn't start singing again until my early twenties. I came back to it through hearing Joni Mitchell's Mingus, the first of her albums that I bought. Then I got Mingus' Ah Um. I'd never heard anything like it before—I'd never heard any jazz really. It appealed to me a lot, it was so different, harmonically and rhythmically, to everything else I'd been listening to.

Before this I'd been a bit of a Dylan obsessive—I had twenty four of his albums. I liked Leonard Cohen too, his very early, basically acoustic stuff. I was really into Hendrix too, and John Lee Hooker, Steely Dan, Janis Joplin.

AAJ: And Irish folk music?

CT: No, I don't come from that background at all. I mean, I'm open to anything, if I like what I hear, and I'll learn it if someone asks me to sing it. I did a lot of that Irish thing in Lammas and I think a lot of people heard that and put two and two together and came up with, you know, eight. Thought I was an Irish folk singer who'd wandered into jazz. But that's not the way it was.

AAJ: How would you describe your style, if you had to label it?

CT: I'm a singer-songwriter drawing on jazz and a whole lot of other influences. That's the best I can do with categorizing it. I listen to lots of different music and I think it all comes out in the way I sing and write. It's like food. Whatever you put in your body eventually comes out on your skin.

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