Zoe Francis with Jim Mullen, Gareth Williams, Stan Sulzman..
(Pizza Express, 19th May 2015. Review by Brian Blain)
Several months having passed since hearing the debut show of singer Zoe Francis with her band of heavyweights, led by guitar legend Jim Mullen and including Claire Martin’s MD Gareth Williams (piano), Stan Sulzman (saxophone), Mick Hutton (double bass) and Enzo Zirilli (drums), it was with some sense of anticipation that I made my way to Dean Street’s Pizza Express on Tuesday last.
Immediately one could not help noticing an increased authority, and yet – and it is an important part of her appeal – she retains an almost diffident charm and a vocal quality that seems to hark back to band singers of the thirties and forties, before ‘the jazz singers’ from Ella Fitzgerald onwards took over the world. Without trying for the effect, just now and again there might be just a hint of Billie Holiday too. But a soul belter she is not.
Kicking off with Wouldn’t it be Lovely, on which Gareth Williams quickly got into a blues-soaked bag, and the band were given time to settle into a tempo a notch above medium, this was followed by the emotionally charged …Lull in My Life when everything calmed down and Mullen’s gentle comping followed by his classic logic and emotional charge set the template for the rest of the evening. Ray Noble‘s The Very Thought of You was followed by a great swing feel on I Wish I Knew which stimulated just that hint of Holiday and another storming solo from Williams that produced a head turn and big smile from Sulzman, the man who has seen and done it all in this music.
Francis invariably chooses great tunes, many of them are out of the norm, like the gentle bossa treatment of Early Autumn, the track that propelled Stan Getz to fame with Woody Herman in the late forties and Sleeping Bee and Spring is Here, two songs that opened the second set. Nevertheless the acid test for me was her duet with just Mullen on My Man, a Billie Holiday moan-fest that is somewhere near the bottom of my list of favourites; suddenly,here was a treatment that brought her exquisite voice and considerable technique into clearer focus – beautiful. But hey, this is jazz and before we had chance to ponder it was back to a marvellous groove on Out of This World, built around that classic Milestones figure and a version of Mel Torme’s Born to be Blue that sent us out into the street after two sets that did not lose their grip once. Quite an achievement from someone who is still a relatively new face.