I’ve been looking forward to this album ever since I first heard that singer Christine Tobin was setting some W B Yeats poems to music. I’m not disappointed. It’s a rich and rewarding listen for all sorts of reasons, but mainly for the intelligence – both artistic and emotional – that Tobin has brought to the whole project.
Firstly, there is the way she has constructed the music. Of course, poetry has great rhythmic and rhyming material to work with, but, just as surely, poetry is not the same as a song lyric. And these Yeats poems are not exactly moon-in-june stuff. So the way that Christine has composed melodies that both reflect her own distinctive compositional style and are perfectly attuned to the words is remarkable.
There are too many examples to focus on here, so let’s just take one. As a poem set to music, The Wild Swans At Coole is as near perfection as I think it is possible to get. The tune of the opening line matches simply the rhythm of the line, and the melody’s second line repeats the first, except that its entry is delayed in order to complete the scansion, and that delay has a magical way of lifting the rhythmic interest in a way that probably only a jazz musician could.
The melody line gently bounces through line three, and rises up to the heavens on the word “sky”. There follows a falling melodic line that never fails to take my breath away, no matter how many times I hear it.
How can a simple line of notes have that effect? Of course it isn’t quite the notes alone that make it so moving – I tried playing the melody of Wild Swans… plainly on the piano and that certainly doesn’t have the full effect.
Which brings us on to the next part of the process. What makes it so special is the musicality, the nuanced phrasing, those subtle bends and overtones, that the singer brings to it. And the setting her band gives it.
Tobin’s singing style seems ideally suited to poetry where every word counts – she articulates wonderfully, there is no mumbling or slurring, and yet makes it all sound so natural and almost conversational. And the tonal richness in her voice means she can convey all manner of emotion, both subtle and powerful, without using any of the cliches or tricks of conventional jazz singing.
The band is comprised of Tobin regulars from previous albums and tours. Her partner Phil Robson is on guitar, Liam Noble on piano, Kate Shortt on cello and Dave Whitford on bass. The new addition is flautist Gareth Lockrane. All provide the most superb support. It’s not the kind of jazz project that gives a lot of solo space to the band – the songs are paramount here – but their ensemble work is impeccable and the brief solos are neatly judged.
And what of the songs? There is a satisfying coherence to the whole album, with Tobin composing as if making a harmonically and melodically flowing song cycle. So the songs have both distinctive characters but also flow into each other, with melodic turns and intervals not necessarily repeated but rather associated.
The most challenging musical adaptation is, I think, Sailing To Byzantium, which doesn’t really give Tobin much to work with in song structure, leaving her to suit the music to the words in a rhythmically freer way, with the band acting as rich cushion.
Elsewhere, she draws musical structure out of the words in a remarkable fashion. When You Are Old is a perfectly-formed gentle ballad; Byzantium grooves easily; The Song Of Wandering Aengus has a folk jig feel; The Fisherman has a dreamy swing; and The Second Coming is positively dangerous, with its discordant interlude. You can easily whistle all of these!
For In Memory Of Eva Gore-Booth And Constance Markievicz, Christine cleverly uses a different tune for the second part, while the whole starts and ends in delicate tintinnabulation.
The CD has been beautifully programmed, with three tracks featuring Christine’s one-time teacher Gabriel Byrne reading the poems. There is also the slightest sound manipulation, so that Christine’s voice on Long-Legged Fly is thinned and trebled and slightly back in the richer instrumental mix. It’s a perfectly judged move, which really does sum up everything about this album.
I realise I haven’t detailed all its joys – we’d be here all day and into next week. Just buy it and live with it and I’m sure you’ll find it a true companion for years to come. I know I will.