Christine Tobin ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ (Trail Belle) 4/5

In 1964 French singer began a series of albums specifically devoted to putting into musical forms the poetry of Guillaume Apollinaire, Louis Aragon, Arthur Rimbaud (Patti Smith being a particular devotee among others) and Paul Verlaine. From the early 1990s onwards Chicago-born singer-songwriter and pianist Patricia Barber has consistently incorporated poetry into her jazz repertoire. In the UK, Irish singer Christine Tobin has released a body work that is now beginning to stand comparison with the aforementioned and that is hight praise indeed. After a fine reworking of the entire ‘Tapestry’ album that Carol King made famous in 1971, now comes an even more ambitious undertaking from the Dubliner and one that is devoted to the poetry of one of Ireland’s finest thespians, W.B. Yeats. As in the case of Ferré in France, this is a formidable task with numerous pitfalls, but Tobin has proven herself well up to the task and in the process the spoken word now rendered into musical verse takes on a whole new life. In order to accomplish this, the leader is accompanied by her trusted pianist, Liam Noble, the excellent guitar playing of Phil Robson, the very welcome addition of flautist Gareth Lockrane on selected numbers and, on brief interludes, the surprise appearance of actor Gabriel Byrne who delivers with his usual authority and who also it turns out, was one of Tobin’s former teachers. The music itself is deeply melodic and a good deal of thought has gone into making the final product sound so effortless. One of the most beautiful interpretations is ‘The wild swans at Coole with a haunting guitar intro that has shades of Bill Frisell written all over it and the austere piano accompaniment provides Tobin with the ideal backdrop with which to deliver a grippingly intense version. Quite possibly, this is Christine Tobin’s finest moment on CD thus far. The mid-tempo ‘Byzantium’ is notable for a delicate piano solo from Noble and the soaring voice of Tobin. Dramatic is the only way to describe the intro to ‘The second coming’ that recalls Manuel De Falla’s ‘Fire dance’ while the infectous uptempo number ‘The fisherman’ features some lovely interplay between flute and piano. Voice, cello and brass all combine wonderfully on the opener ‘When you are old’. All in all this is a triumphant homage to Yeats. A UK tour follows shortly in October and, with such an eclectic range of songs to select from, this promises to be a major event of the early autumn calendar. Tim Stenhouse