With her new album, Somewhere in the Night, Zoe Francis once again demonstrates just what a fine vocalist she really is, yet for some reason Zoe does not seem to get the exposure her considerable talents deserve.

If there is any justice, this excellent new album should put Zoe firmly on the jazz radar, and also serve to show just how far her music has come. If we have been a little complacent in recognising Zoe’s talent, others have not. The renowned American guitarist, Peter Bernstein has certainly not been shy about offering his opinion saying that Somewhere in the Night is “a great record that stands out in its beauty and courage”.

High praise indeed, and in my humble opinion more than justified. It was therefore my pleasure not just to have been sent a copy of the album to review, but also the opportunity to talk to Zoe about the recording and her passion for the music that she has travelled across the world to pursue.

Following on from her earlier release Blue Town, Zoe has retained the same slightly unusual instrumentation of guitar and organ played by Jim Mullen and Ross Stanley she has taken as her influence of the Blue Note recordings of the fifties and sixties. “There are certain recordings that I keep going back to” explains Zoe. And these include John Coltrane’s albums Crescent, Ballads, and an earlier one Kenny Burrell and John Coltrane. Also, Hank Mobley’s Soul Station, and Grant Green Street of Dreams. I love the dynamics between Grant and Larry Young and the way they complement each other. I just love Grant’s earthy blues sound and Larry’s McCoy Tyner’s style adapted to jazz organ. Both Jim and Ross share these attributes – with strong time feel and great melodic and harmonic ideas. It is thrilling to sing these timeless stories standing between them on stage.”

With the right musicians in tow in Jim Mullen and Ross Stanley, Zoe does seem to have found the perfect combination in which to place her vocals, and she also has a talent for finding the right songs too with a wonderfully varied programme.  “The repertoire began with Grant Green’s version of ‘Somewhere in the Night’ from his Street of Dreams recorded in 1964” says Zoe. “I was Inspired to write lyrics to Larry Young’s intro. This album is my love letter to the sound of organ and guitar in jazz, and the beauty of a well-crafted lyric.

“I believe these songs will always have something to offer new audiences. When I chose the songs on this record the time signature was primary to my setting of these stories, for example ‘Who can I turn to’ in 5/4, ‘Skylark’ as a waltz, and ‘Midnight Sun’ as a samba, and this is how I personalise the lyric.” Continuing, she adds “Our last album Blue Town was a reverie in happy melancholy whereas, Somewhere in the Night is more upbeat and positive.”

More positive indeed, as again quoting Perter Bernstein who made the observation that “To have organ and guitar without drums is basically unheard of, but when musicians have exquisite voices on their instruments it is truly complete, and nothing is missed. Jim Mullen and Ross Stanley are two of the very finest, the epitome of class.”

With the depth of empathy and understanding between singer and guitarist, it comes as no surprise that their musical relationship goes back many years with Jim Mullen playing on Zoe’s live album The very thought of you that was recorded at the 606 Club in 2014. “I was introduced to Jim at a gig in Bristol, where I had been gigging for a several years before moving to London”, Zoe recalls. “I invited Jim to join me on some duo gigs, and we discovered we had both lived in New York for a time, where our love of jazz had deepened. Our friendship grew from there.”

On mentioning New York, I asked Zoe about her interest in music and her travels around the globe. Born in London she grew up in Northern Ireland and as Zoe remembers, “There was jazz playing somewhere in the background of my early childhood when growing up in Northern Ireland, along with the tension of the troubles, and the often fraught relationship my young parents had. There was also the frequent moving, and then my parents separating when I was 7. I hated the move to the council estate in Gainsborough, England, and the eczema I had from birth became much worse. Like a lot of children growing up in the 70’s and 80’s we made our own way to and from school and had plenty of time alone at home before family returned”.

Pausing to reflect, Zoe say “It was during these times I would play the records that were part of my dad’s hidden, too old to play on the new stereo, record collection. It was small collection, but I played them over and over. Jelly Roll Morten singing about a train that took his baby away, Billie Holiday’s recordings singing about backyards, no good men, and bubbles going to your head. There were also live recordings of Miles Davis and John Coltrane at famous clubs, a Georgie Fame single ‘Yeah Yeah’, and an Ella Fitzgerald single ‘Cry Me A River’. I didn’t know they were jazz! I just liked the stories, they became my secret world, my happy melancholy!

“Around this time, I fell in love with the old movie musicals that were always on the television. The songs, the dancing, the joy, they really became escapism for me from the sadness, the eczema, the dysfunction around me, as my father, his father, and my mum’s father all passed within a few years. Then we moved to Lincoln, where I got into contemporary dance, and a theatre group. My studies in dance and theatre continued in Nottingham and then London, with a recall to the national youth theatre and auditions lined up at drama schools, but eczema thwarted plans, regularly being admitted to hospital with it.”

Displaying a remarkable resilience Zoe was not one to simply give up on her dreams, and instead found herself spending time in the United States and once again pursued her love of jazz. Taking uo the story, Zoe continues. “It wasn’t until my time living in New York that I started going regularly to jazz clubs. To hear so many wonderful musicians was a dream, and the old songs from the films came flooding back. I bought CDs from Tower Records and listened to jazz endlessly, mostly instrumental recordings to start. Then I was told about the pianist Barry Harris who was running workshops on Tuesday’s. A musician said you don’t have to be a professional singer to go, and so my singing journey began. I had voice lessons with several great teachers, and started gigging with great jazz musicians on a very supportive jazz scene”.

As if not quite able to believe it herself, Zoe again pauses before adding “I believe I wouldn’t have got into singing if it had not been for Barry Harris and a few singers/musicians there who encouraged me to do so. I don’t think I will ever tire of these classic songs, they have given me roots, a different way of living life. There is endless learning and retelling in them. This great music, like so much great music, was born out of people moving to other countries and a need to make sense of it.”

And make sense of it Zoe Francis certainly has. Since settling permanently in London with her partner Jim Mullen, she has continued to develop as vocalist and now perhaps only now with the release of Somewhere in the Night is she revealing not just how far she has come, but what there is to follow.

For more information visit Zoe’s website.