Jim Mullen and Zoe Francis in North Wales

Zoe Francis and Jim Mullen. Photo by Michael Parry

Recent visits to North Wales have generated a number of musical surprises. Jazz Journal readers will have seen my review of the Henry Lowther quintet at Hermon Chapel Arts Center in Oswestry, Shropshire, back in May. Not more than 20 minutes away, however, is another surprise venue presenting quality jazz.

Tan-y-Garth is a listed Arts & Crafts mansion standing in 13 acres of woodland in the beautiful Ceiriog Valley,in Pontfadog, near Llangollen in North Wales. Used for many years as a residential study centre focused on yoga, mysticism, philosophy and natural history, the facility is now expanding its scope to offer performances and workshops in the performing arts. This past 28 July, the management got the ball rolling with an afternoon of jazz from a distinguished pair of UK jazz artists, vocalist Zoe Francis and her partner the guitarist Jim Mullen.

Zoe and Jim are well known in the UK, both individually and in their work together, often with a quartet but also, as on this occasion, as a duo.

Born in London, growing up in Northern Ireland and trained in New York, where she worked with musicians of the calibre of Harry Allen, Joe Cohn, Warren Vaché and Chris Flory, Zoe finished up back in the UK, working with pianist David Newton in Bristol and then, in London, with Gareth Williams, Stan Sulzmann, and Jim Mullen. She has recently issued her fourth album under her own name.

A veteran of both the UK and US jazz scenes, Glasgow-born guitarist Jim Mullen has appeared on more then two dozen recordings, both as leader and sideman, working with artists such as Dick Morrissey, Brian Auger, Mike Carr, Jimmy Witherspoon, Stan Sulzman, Gareth Williams, Mose Allison, Gene Harris, Jimmy Smith, Teddy Edwards. As well as Zoe Francis, he works regularly with his own organ trio and has recently issued a new recording, Volunteers, featuring a nine-piece ensemble with arrangements by Gareth Lockrane.

On this occasion, the performance was supposed to take place on an outdoor stage but the weather did not cooperate, forcing everyone into an indoor studio and recital room. It was, however, comfortable, warm and … full – to the delight of the management. And the music suited the space admirably.

It has occurred to me that the duo should comprise a new category in jazz polls, given the recent proliferation of such ensembles as a result, primarily, of economic pressures. And while husband and wife teams are not unheard of in jazz they have not mostly worked as duos, given the demands such a combination makes, particularly on the accompanist – pianist or guitarist. One couple whose work I know, flutist Holly Hofmann and pianist Mike Wofford comes to mind, but Zoe and Jim should be added to the list, very near the top. While it is easy to imagine Zoe’s finely honed delivery of melodies and lyrics with the full support of their quartet, or with a full orchestra, Mullen’s guitar work rises to the challenge of providing such support while – the hardest part – taking unaccompanied, albeit brief, solos.

While devoting some of his time to a couple of sitters-in – yours truly on flute and co-organiser Lynda Murray on alto saxophone, Mullen joined Francis and addressed a series of carefully chosen standards, among them Surrey With The Fringe On Top, The Very Thought of You and Tea For Two – dramatically recast at slow tempo – and a highly engaging selection from Zoe’s tribute to Blossom Dearie – Peel Me A Grape.

The subtleties involved in putting these and other songs across with such limited forces owe as much to experience as to technique and, as a measure of their success, the packed room was held spellbound throughout. The performance sent me online in search of Zoe and Jim’s recordings. I hope Jazz Journal readers will do the same; they will not be disappointed.

Zoe Francis (v), Jim Mullen (g). Tan-y-Garth Hall, Pontfadog, 28 July 2019.