Christine Tobin mesmerises from the moment she steps on stage. Resplendent in a sparkling green top, warm and witty, she thanked a packed Pizza Express for venturing out on a rainy Saturday night to catch her London Jazz Festival set.
On Saturday, X Factor night, Christine showed how far removed she is from those ‘mannequined pop stars shaped for the shareholders’ rapture’ (to quote her own words from her song Black and Blue).
For me, there are three things that make Tobin special. Firstly, her glorious voice, sonorous and strong across all of its considerable range is not something that many singers can boast of and puts her in the esteemed company of the likes of Sarah Vaughan and Elis Regina. Then there’s the deep groove that underpins every note she sings, whether she is carefully relating a song’s lyrics or improvising. And thirdly she brings an indelible sense of self to very diverse material.
Tonight the songs ranged from Jobim (Modinha) to Leonard Cohen (Everybody Knows), Joni Mitchell (The Wolf That Lives in Lindsey), Rufus Wainwright (Poses) and her own hook-laden compositions (from albums Secret Life of a Girl, Romance and Revolution and House of Women) with their refreshingly sophisticated lyrical content. Everything is presented with utter conviction and honesty. You might catch a moment of Billie Holiday in a melancholic delivery, a Betty Carter tinged scat, a world music influence in her rhythmic displacements. But there is never any doubting you are listening to Christine Tobin.
Deceptively simple arrangements and quality accompanists stengthen her individuality: Dave Whitford on bass tirelessly anchored every feel and time change with his powerful, rich, woody tone and immaculate intonation. Cellist Kate Shortt shone with her gutsy, sometimes aggressive solos on Everybody Knows and The Wolf That Lives in Lindsey: double-stopping, slapping and glissando-ing with a wonderfully controlled intensity that never derailed the music and acted as an intriguing juxtaposition to her modest demeanour. Thebe Lipere on percussion, though slightly intrusive on the moving Modinha justly let loose on Black and Blue and lent colour and texture throughout.
Long-time collaborator Phil Robson on guitar completed the sound scape with exemplary comping and endlessly inventive solos within which you could hear everything from bebop to more contemporary styles. The tricky unison lines in his composition, Ooh! Salamander, were a highlight with his rocky sitar-like sound perfectly complementing Tobin’s impeccable Carnatic-influenced vocal.
A subsequent show meant that the audience didn’t get the encore it was demanding. But lyric to her new song, Catalogue, seemed to give the right message: “I’m all that’s gone before and yet I’ve only just begun”.
Exactly. Tobin’s in her prime.