In recent years jazz public enemy number one seems to have shifted from "smooth jazz" to "jazz vocalists." The heavy promotion and subsequent success of the Kralls, Cullums, and Monheits has almost given vocals in jazz a bad name. It has become much more difficult for a genuinely distinctive singer to be taken seriously in the jazz field.
Well, Christine Tobin is very much the distinctive jazz singer. Originating from Dublin, she first came to notice in the UK as a sometimes Gaelic-singing member of Lammas. Yet she has stressed that her roots are not in Irish traditional music; the singer/songwriter school of the '60s and '70s is her starting point. Over a series of excellent albums she has taken songs from that source, alongside jazz standards and her own compositions, to forge a sound that is unlike any other contemporary singer.
Tobin makes no attempt to emulate the sound of the Julie London LP sleeve. Her voice is midrange, husky, sometimes harsh, frequently bluesy. She takes a lyric and tries to bring out its meaning to the listener, rather than trying to make a pretty sound. Her recordings are not easy listening backdrops for sophisticated seducers but genuine attempts to explore the unsettling nature of human relationships.
Romance and Revolution is equally divided between originals and covers. The latter stretch from a straight version of Brian Wilson's "God Only Knows through a semi-Latin take on Dylan's "Shelter from the Storm to a sultry "Can't Help Loving that Man.
However, the stand out tracks are the original songs. Best of these is the opening "Horses, a setting of a Paul Muldoon poem that perfectly matches the dream-like feel of the words. Phil Robson's guitar is magical here; his rippling effects behind the vocal give way to a beautiful central solo. Robson is Tobin's regular concert and recording partner, and he's the other key voice on Romance and Revolution, whether on electric or acoustic guitar. Listeners who know him from the high-octane band Partisans will be surprised by the sensitivity of his accompaniment across this recording.
"He's Not Anyone is reminiscent of Joni Mitchell during her most creative phase in the mid-'70s. The unusual chord choices make for a rich listening experience; and just as the listener's ear was drawn to Jaco Pastorius as much as the singer on Hejira, so do Robson's ever-changing guitar shapes grab equal attention here.
Christine Tobin has proved herself over a string of recordings in the last decade; she is also a major influence in the UK jazz scene, helping to put together opportunities for musicians to present their work to the wider public. She has never displayed any temptation to be drawn towards a more populist agenda, preferring to follow her own path. If you've given up on jazz vocals as lost to the world of pop, then try Romance and Revolution. It might just restore your faith in the genre.
Horses; God Only Knows; Black and Blue; He
Christine Tobin: voice, piano; Phil Robson: guitar; Dave Whitford: double bass; Thebe
Lipere: percussion; Steve Arguelles: drums.
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