(Zoe Francis Records. CD Review by Brian Blain)
No one makes a fortune accompanying UK jazz singers, so the fact that musicians of the stature of Barry Green, Gareth Williams, Stan Sulzman, Mick Hutton and Jim Mullen have been doing so on live dates and albums with singer Zoe Francis since she came to London a few years ago tells you all you need to know about the respect that they have for the subtle perfection of her vocal technique: understated but totally gripping, as her live audiences would undoubtedly testify.
With Blue Town, her fourth album, on her own label, she goes for a change of setting with just two stellar musicians, guitarist Jim Mullen, a legend to guitar players around the world, and organist Ross Stanley, probably the most in-demand sideman on the British scene. With no drums or conventional electric or acoustic bass on which to centre the time this is quite a challenge but Mullen’s restrained comping combined with Stanley’s varied dynamics – he can be quite shouty and explosive on occasion while at other times draws carpets of harmonic colouration from his Hammond B3 – are just what Francis’s voice needs.
The voice; ah yes. I have seen it referred to as ‘winsome’, a totally inaccurate description of timbre, diction and time that can hold audiences spellbound. Listen to her version of Bobby Troup’s Meaning of the Blues for example and after some of Stanley’s most appealing colourations and a typically blues-inflected Mullen solo, her re-entry on the lyric is understated but commanding. Above all .for me, she is just fantastically cool; not a copy of the great June Christy but not a million miles from her combination of understatement and strength. Another of Zoe’s qualities is her choice of material, from a road less travelled in the American Song Book – or even outside it. There’s a lovely, lilting up-tempo waltz from Enrico Morricone, for example, Song For Elena, which is really uplifting and Lionel Bart’s Who Will Buy? But back to the US, Ralph Burns’s Early Autumn is really intriguing. This was the tune that made a teenage Stan Getz famous for his genuinely iconic solo at the end of Woody Herman’s version, but here the mood and the tempo which seems to float somewhere between waltz and light jazz samba is a totally different conception.
Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen’s All My Tomorrows is a rarely heard song but it’s a classic ‘yearning’ romantic number that Mullen’s trademark blues-inflected ‘bent’ notes enhance perfectly. The title track, A New Town is a Blue town, while redolent of small-town Americana as seen in scores of old films is just as appropriate today in the way it references the all too prevalent hostility to the homeless and refugees desperately seeking a place to settle. Finally, a personal note. A few years ago I met Zoe at one of Christian Brewer’s pop-up gigs in a pub in Highgate. She was with a friend and I didn’t find out from talking, that she was a singer. I was just amazed that someone so young was so aware of past idols. I asked her who was one of her favourites, and back came the answer, Jack Teagarden. And here on the album is one of his all-time classics Harold Arlen’s I’ve Got a Right to Sing the Blues – bless! There’ much more, like Ellington’s daft, but fun, Love You Madly, and a much better Ellington, Daydream, probably because of Billy Strayhorn’s contribution – but let’s not go there.
Altogether this is a richly satisfying collection: it won’t make you punch the air straight away but give it time and attention and you will inevitably come to the conclusion that Zoe Francis is more than a bit special.