Zoe Francis – Remembering Blossom Dearie
(Zoe Francis Records. CD Review by Jane Mann)
London-born Zoe Francis began singing when she was living and studying in New York, and her first gigs were in Manhattan. When she returned to London, she recorded her first album Looking For A Boy in 2013. This, only her third CD, is devoted to songs made famous by Blossom Dearie, the well-known New Yorker singer/pianist (1924-2009) who lived in Paris in the 1950s, and who frequently performed in London throughout her long career.
Francis says: “I have long been a fan of Blossom’s as she had great diction, taste and a very intimate way of putting a song across”. She had been intending to add more brilliant Dearie songs to her repertoire, but then decided to record a whole album of them. Some of this material was only ever recorded by Dearie, other songs were specifically written for her. These include Try Your Wings by Michael Barr and Dion McGregor, played here as a gentle bossa nova. All the songs on the CD are arranged by eminent Scottish guitarist Jim Mullen, and played by him, pianist Barry Green with Mick Hutton on bass. This is not a Dearie tribute band – these are fresh, well-crafted arrangements. Francis has the appropriate clarity of diction and poise that these songs require without that girlish Dearie tone – her voice is gentle, airy and bright but always elegant, and you never miss a word.
There are three songs by Cy Coleman, one of Dearie’s favourite composers. The Riviera is a perfect Blossom Dearie vehicle, with a catchy tune and clever lyrics, for example when “Maharajah” is rhymed with “décolletage”. Francis clearly relishes the words and Mullen slips in French musical references – there’s a sliver of Nuages in the intro.
There are two Dave Frishberg tunes, a very poised version of I’m Hip (“I am anything but middle class”) and a cool Peel Me A Grape (“Bring me a bowl full of bon-bons!”). Francis sings these witty songs with nonchalance, to sensitive accompaniment from the trio, with plenty of space for unhurried solos from Mullen and Green.
I like their version of the supremely silly Tea for Two, (“Day will break/you will wake/ I will bake/a sugar cake/for you to take/ for all the boys to see”). According to legend, when this song was written in 1925, the words were stop gaps, until a lyricist could write some proper words, but that never happened. Dearie’s own version was slow and wistful, in contrast to popular recordings at the time. Here Francis and the band reimagine the piece as a fast swinging waltz, sung with a very light touch reminiscent of dance bands of the ’30s.
There are three Bernstein tunes – Lonely Town showcasing Green’s rippling piano and Some Other Time Hutton’s understated rhythmic underpinning, and Lucky To Be Me showing off Francis’s vocal range and dexterity and also providing space for a rare solo from Hutton. There’s a pretty, pared down arrangement of the Michel Legrand tune Once Upon a Summertime, just voice and flickering piano. (Interestingly, Dearie formed an eight-piece vocal group in France in the 1950s with Legrand’s sister Christiane, which eventually became The Swingle Singers.)
The album concludes with Lies of Handsome Men by Francesca Blumenthal, a lovely Sondheim-ish dinner jazz piece which Dearie recorded in 1990 and which Francis and Co play with a light Brazilian feel. If you like the music of Blossom Dearie you will enjoy this album. If you are new to her work this fresh take will serve as an excellent introduction both to her and to lovely Zoe Francis. Sadly there is no longer a chance to see Dearie play but you can catch this delightful quartet live: