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Ear for words and vocal talent are winning mix

Christine Tobin is a singer with connections.

AWARD: Vocalist Christine Tobin
AWARD: Vocalist Christine Tobin

When the Dublin-born winner of this year's Parliamentary Jazz Awards Vocalist of the Year title was planning her Sailing To Byzantium album in 2012, she wanted a male Irish voice to read a few WB Yeats poems to complement the ones she had set to music.

Her ideal was a former teacher whose drama lessons had encouraged her in learning stagecraft and who was in possession of, not to put too fine a point on it, a rather sexy set of pipes. He took a bit of tracking down due to the career path he had followed after leaving Dublin, but when Tobin's missive finally reached him he remembered his former pupil and was only too happy to oblige by recording six Yeats poems onto MP3s and emailing them back the next day.

And that's how Gabriel Byrne, the star of films including The Usual Suspects and Miller's Crossing - and who returns to our screens as BBC TV's Quirke this Sunday - came to be reading The Lake Isle of Innisfree to an accompaniment composed by Tobin on Sailing To Byzantium. The album won Tobin a Composer of the Year award, so she can hardly be accused of riding on a Hollywood heart-throb's coat tails, but Byrne's contributions were and remain a striking part of a superb recording.

"He was actually a Spanish teacher but he was working at our school while he was training to be an actor and he organised these drama sessions after school to help us put on end-of-term plays and shows," says Tobin.

"I don't think any of us were surprised that he became a success in films because he was very charismatic and quite the heart-throb even then. Girls used to rearrange their desks before he came into class so that they'd be sitting closer to him, that sort of thing."

The connection that led to Sailing To Byzantium's successor, A Thousand Kisses Deep, for which Tobin has been receiving unanimously approving reviews, goes back even further than secondary school. She was 10 when her older sister- whose music listening habits influenced Tobin's own tastes - arrived home with an album called Fill Your Head With Rock.

This was in the golden age of vinyl sampler albums, which record companies used to release at temptingly low prices to lead record buyers towards lesser known acts.

Fill Your Head With Rock was a double album that sold at around £2 and became something of a rite of passage for school age music fans. It featured leading CBS acts including Santana, the Byrds and for Tobin, fatefully, Leonard Cohen.

"I liked other tracks," says Tobin. "I remember Laura Nyro was on there and Moondog, who sounded different to anything else I'd ever heard

"But there was something about Leonard Cohen's voice that really attracted me. It was very low and although there was a sadness about the song, it was a romantic sadness. I've never got on with the thing about Leonard Cohen being depressing. To me he sounded very warm, very kind."

Through her teens Tobin developed a love of words that comes across very clearly in her utterly distinctive singing. Bob Dylan was a major interest. Then Joni Mitchell, another of her sister's favourites, led Tobin into jazz through her Mingus album.

The Celtic jazz band Lammas, in which she sang alongside guitarist, now respected poet, Don Paterson, also helped to develop Tobin's ear for poems that can become songs. But Cohen has been a constant source of pleasure and inspiration and A Thousand Kisses Deep, on which she interprets 11 of his songs, has become her salute to him in this, his 80th year.

She won a Herald Angel at the Edinburgh Fringe last August for its live incarnation during the inaugural British Vocal Jazz Festival and what struck then, as now, is the respect with which she treats Cohen's words and music. She hardly ever alters a melody, although she has changed certain songs quite profoundly in other ways, like Suzanne for example, which becomes an African high life party.

"I remember hearing the Suzanne in the song being interviewed on the radio," Tobin explains, "and she seemed quite different from the way Cohen portrayed her. She was very bohemian, lived in a caravan, and seemed very outgoing and I just thought I could bring her personality out more without bending the song out of shape."

For the Scottish tour that begins in Aberdeen tomorrow, Tobin is joined by her regular accompanists, guitarist Phil Robson and double bassist Dave Whitford, although pianist Ross Stanley will deputise for Robson when Tobin appears at Glasgow Jazz Festival next month. It's a very compact unit that has worked together a lot and often sounds as if more than three people are involved.

"It's very instinctive for us now," says Tobin. "We know each other so well and that allows us to be spontaneous.

"We're working with great material written by a master and we want to bring these songs alive and make them breathe in the moment."

Christine Tobin A Thousand Kisses Deep plays Blue Lamp, Aberdeen, Thursday May 22; Frigate Unicorn, Dundee, Friday 23; Greenhouse, Dingwall, Saturday 24; Lyth Arts Centre, Sunday 25; Old Library, Kilbarchan, Tuesday 27; Queen's Hall, Edinburgh, Wednesday 28; Carnegie Hall, Dunfermline, Thursday 29; Tolbooth, Stirling, Friday 30

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