IT may seem a bit of a quantum leap from the Celtic mysticism of WB Yeats to the contemporary enigmatic pessimism of Leonard Cohen, but Christine Tobin demonstrates otherwise, with panache.
The award-winning Irish jazz singer and songwriter composed accomplished settings of Yeats’s poetry for 2012 album Sailing to Byzantium; now she’s releasing a fine album devoted to Cohen’s songs, A Thousand Kisses Deep, and this month embarks on an eight-gig Scottish tour to launch it.
Over the past two decades, Tobin has established herself as an authoritatively articulate interpreter of both her own songs and those of others. But the Yeats-Cohen progression isn’t as unlikely as one might imagine, she says, pointing out that the Canadian singer – a poet and novelist before becoming a singer-songwriter – credits the works of Yeats, along with those of Frederico García Lorca, as inspiring him to become a poet himself.
The existential old groaner’s songs, in turn, inspired Tobin when she was growing up in Dublin. She refers to You Know Who I Am, to which she gives sinuous voice on the new album. She was ten when she first heard it, she recalls, speaking from her home in Margate. “I first heard it on a compilation album my sister had, along with people like Laura Nyro and Janis Joplin and Moondog. Even though I was so young, I was fascinated by his voice and I knew there was something really deep and dark there.”
Tobin has been singing Cohen for years, and this year’s 80th birthday prompted her to record the album, which sees her accompanied by long-standing collaborators, guitarist (and husband) Phil Robson and double bassist Dave Whitford, along with percussion from Adriano Adewale and textural swathes of accordion from Hugh Warren. Gwilym Simcock contributes luminous piano to the gentle Anthem and Nick Smart warm-toned trumpet on Dance Me to the End of Love.
Tobin tackles these songs, along with other favourites such as Tower of Song and That’s No Way to Say Goodbye, with customary clarity and an essentially jazzy inflection which still allows Cohen’s nuances to echo through – even in Suzanne, here borne along on a bouncy African-styled accompaniment. “I very seldom change the melody [in a cover],” she says, “but I do change the backdrop, the harmonies and the background colour or frame. Because when a songwriter like Cohen has great words, they’ll fit them perfectly to the melody.”
Sailing to Byzantium took a different approach, with Tobin composing the melodies for the poems, (although Gabriel Byrne speaks three of them against musical backdrops). The project, which saw Robson and Whitford joined by pianist Liam Noble, Kate Short on cello and Gareth Lockrane on flute – won her a British Composer Award.
It’s a slightly more chamberish sound than A Thousand Kisses Deep, but not without power, as The Second Coming is declaimed over inexorably slamming chords and her passionate account of The Song of Wandering Aengus generates an appropriately feverish vibe.
Tobin was heartened by the reception given to the Yeats album: “Professor Tony Roche, who is a Yeats scholar, came to my concert in Dublin and bought a copy of the CD and said he really loved it.”
On this Scottish tour, however, accompanied by Robson and Whitford, she’ll be concentrating on the Cohen material, although expect something from two of her other great influences, Billie Holiday and Joni Mitchell.
Before that, however, Tuesday sees the announcement of this year’s Parliamentary Jazz Awards, in which she’s been nominated as Jazz Vocalist of the Year. She’s in with a good chance, her voice having been described by one critic as “24-carat”. Another writer, some years ago, rather effusively hailed her as “the Björk of Eurojazz” – about which she may nurse mixed feelings. She laughs: “I never had the opportunity to get into any of these fancy costumes though.”
• The Thousand Kisses Deep tour starts in the Blue Lamp, Aberdeen, on 22 May. Other dates include the Frigate Unicorn, Dundee, on the 23rd and the Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, on the 28th. For full details see www.christine-tobin.com