A series where musicians and others stop by for an imaginary Tea Break to talk about their music and projects.
Vocalist Zoe Francis was born in London but grew up in Northern Ireland. When her parents separated she moved to Lincolnshire with her mum and sister where, from watching the great dancers on film - Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Gene Kelly, Cyd Charisse – Zoe fell in love with dance. In her teenage years she toured with a contemporary dance company and acted in a local theatre group, but it was on a visit to New York while learning Tango and going to Jazz clubs, that a musician introduced her to the vocal workshops of pianist Barry Harris.
This was a turning point for Zoe. She discovered her love of great songs and lyrics and decided to pursue a career as a vocalist. Alongside weekly workshops, Zoe began singing in the many jam sessions held around Manhattan, Brooklyn and Harlem and she performed in local clubs with musicians including Harry Allen, Joe Cohn, Warren Vache, and Chris Flory.
After the events of 9/11, Francis understandably found that New York changed and in 2004, she decided to return to the UK, firstly to Devon and then to Bristol where she began singing with award-winning pianist David Newton and so recorded her first album, Looking For a Boy, with David. She moved to London and began working with musicians such as Gareth Williams, Stan Sulzmann and Jim Mullen who would become her husband. Her second album followed – The Very Thought Of You - a live album made at London’s 606 jazz club in 2014 with this band and with Mick Hutton and Enzo Zirilli.
Here is a video of Zoe singing The Things We Did Last Summer at the 606 Club. The video captures well Zoe's relaxed style, her phrasing, and the space given in her songs for the other musicians to interpret the music.
In 2018, Zoe’s album Remembering Blossom Dearie with Jim Mullen, Barry Green and Mick Hutton celebrated the music of the popular, late singer/pianist. Zoe told Rob Adams of the Scottish Herald: “I got to see Blossom when I was living in New York. She was playing in Danny’s Skylight Room, one of her favourite venues, and although she was quite old by that time, her voice was still so pure. I loved her phrasing and the way she made songs tell a story was captivating. A lot of what she did sounds simple on first listening but that’s because she made everything sound effortless. Nowadays, it seems that people are looking for technical acrobatics from singers, but what appealed to me, and still does, was that Blossom sounded so contained. She never over-egged anything and she was very witty. She made everyone laugh.” (You can read more about Zoe's story in Rob Adams' interview here).
Here is Zoe singing Some Other Time from her Remembering Blossom Dearie album.
The album Blue Town followed in 2020, a selection of bittersweet songs once again featuring Zoe’s husband, the multi-award winning guitarist Jim Mullen, and Ross Stanley on Hammond organ.
And now in 2023, Zoe releases her latest recording, Somewhere In The Night, again with Jim Mullen and Ross Stanley. The trio setting works well and Zoe's voice stands out clearly throughout the album without flourishes but on some , e.g. When The Sun Comes Out and Sweet And Lovely noticeably demonstrating her jazz credentials. The playlist includes a variety of songs from a delicate approach to Hoagy Carmichael's Skylark to Anthony Newley's Who Can I Turn To? - and the arrangements bring a fresh approach to some of the numbers - I particularly like the arrangements of Who Can I Turn To? in 5/4 time and the waltz-time of Lerner and Loewe's Show Me. Each track shares space for guitar and organ to bring in their individual contributions. The album was released on 16th June and is available here.
Zoe dropped by for a tea break .....
Hi Zoe. Thanks for stopping by, come on in, we’ll go in the front room as there is a CD player there that we can use. Can I get you a tea or coffee?
Hi Ian, I love the smell of coffee, but a pot of loose leaf Earl Grey or Lapsang Souchong tea always focuses my mind, whereas, these days coffee can feel like mild panic!!
My two favourite teas! I love the wood smoke smell from Lapsang Souchong – but I’m currently out of it, so Earl Grey it is. There’s a café I go to in the afternoons sometimes where they see me come in and say ‘It’s Earl Grey man’. I’m sure the customers think I’m nobility! Milk or sugar?
Definitely no milk or sugar, thank you.
How are things shaping up for the new album?
Somewhere In The Night came out on the 16th of June, so it is early days. We have the launch at the Vortex Jazz Club in London on the 14th July so we are getting ready for that. On top of the gigs we have planned, hopefully there will be more to follow next year as clubs are now booking so far ahead.
I suppose in many ways as far as jazz is concerned it is a good sign that clubs and bands have a healthy forward programme. You have said that you wanted to pay homage to guitarist Grant Green and organist Larry Young with the album?
Yes, but the album is not intended as a tribute to Larry Young and Grant Green, although it was definitely inspired by their albums, Street Of Dreams in particular. I added my own lyrics to the introduction Larry Young did on Somewhere In The Night from that album. Larry Young essentially reinvigorated the language of the organ in jazz, breaking away from the Jimmy Smith, Jimmy McGriff church-based style and Grant Green was the perfect partner.
[We can listen to Somewhere In The Night from Street Of Dreams here]
The organ seems to be increasing in popularity in jazz. Perhaps it is a natural extension of using keyboards. One thing I particularly like though is the way you give space to Jim and Ross to play on the album. Many singers seem to take up the whole track with the vocals. I was watching a video the other day on YouTube where the singer didn’t even introduce her guitarist.
I intentionally didn't want this album to be an organ trio with a singer, I wanted the great lyrics and stories of these classic songs to stand out alongside Jim and Ross's incredible musicality and time feel. I wanted the songs to be in different time signatures to how you often hear them. Midnight Sun originally a ballad, I feel, lends itself easily to a samba with Johnny Mercer's rhythmic, poetic lyric. Too late Now and Be My Love as a Brazilian chorinho, keeping the ballad sentiment, Who Can I Turn To? in 5/4 enhances the question in the title. I hope the new settings to these songs with two of UK's finest musicians gives the album a special quality.
That certainly comes over, and you really interpret the lyrics well. I also, like the way you bring in Anthony Newley and Leslie Briscusse's song alongside classic standards like Skylark, and lesser known songs such as Too Late Now from the 1951 film Royal Wedding. But I’m forgetting my manners. I meant to get some biscuits out. Let’s see, I have some Garibaldis, some Hob Nobs or some custard creams – I’ll put them on the side here and you can help yourself if you fancy them.
Thank you, Ian. People can get a taste of some of the songs from this compilation we have put together here .
Getting an album out can be quite a challenge. Many people still like CDs, but many others download or stream music online now. The other thing I was thinking about is the publicity. Engaging a publicist can be expensive, but I don’t think people appreciate the work and time involved in handling the publicity yourself?
I’m embarrassed to say I find this difficult to learn. I grew up in the ‘70s and ‘80s with very little technology, and my technical skills still struggle to move into the 21st century. Jim, my husband, is much the same, so between us we resemble Fred and Wilma Flintstone on the technology front! I am still attached to my Nokia burner phone, it fits nicely in my hands, and the battery lasts for days! We have managed to break our computer several times so we now potter down to our local library to do printing, invoicing, etc. The librarians there are lovely and very helpful, plus the stroll through Grosvenor Square is always delightful.
I’m sure you are not alone. Even musicians with some tech knowledge must find it all difficult to manage. We don’t hear enough from musicians about how they handle all the things involved.
Have you arranged gigs to promote the new album?
As I was saying earlier, we have the launch at the Vortex Jazz Club in London on the 14th July and we have other gigs planned, I'll put the details on my website. Although I love it, performing live has sometimes been a challenge for me and also you need a lot of photos for promoting in our visually orientated world. I feel awkward about this as, for most of my life, I have struggled with bouts of very severe eczema for which I was often hospitalised. I spent many days alone completely covered in different creams, lotions, ointments, dressings, potions (Chinese medicine) trying to fix it. I got used to hiding it, growing up feeling ashamed of it, as teachers, pupils, bosses, co-workers asked if it was contagious. Thankfully we are more aware now. Jim is very understanding and I am now on a new medicine, that is helping greatly.
That must have been very difficult, but I have to say it's amazing what you have achieved despite that! That deserves a great deal of respect. I'm glad the new medicine is working - it would be a real shame if we were not able to hear your voice and your music live, and as you say, thankfully we are more aware now.
Looking back to your time in New York, you came across many musicians. Is there someone you wish you had seen and heard?
Oh yes. I would have loved to hear John Coltrane. His Ballads album is one of my favourites, I can't count the number of times I've listened to this masterpiece.
I guess it goes back to what you were saying about the way music is interpreted. There are so many great ballads and ‘standards’ that lend themselves to new settings. I also meant to say how much I enjoyed your Remembering Blossom Dearie album. I think it is so valuable to be reminded of musicians who can be so easily overlooked and to reflect new settings for their music.
Thanks for dropping by, Zoe. Good luck for the album launch and for the gigs that will follow on. I’m sure there will be many people who will enjoy ‘Somewhere In The Night’.
Thank you, Ian, and thank you for the tea and biscuits.
Zoe Francis's website is here where you can also order Somewhere In The Night
and where you will find news of her upcoming gigs.