Claire Martin, ‘UK’s best jazz vocalist,’ made her debut at The Oak Room of the legendary Algonquin Hotel, on New York’s West Forty Forth Street this summer.
Coinciding with the release of her twelfth album, He Never Mentioned Love, a tribute to the late, great Shirley Horn. We spoke with Claire on her return to the UK about The Algonquin, her musical friends and returning home again to the sea.
Claire Martin’s Algonquin debut had been a long time in the planning. It turns out that a mix up between her manager, and the powers that be at The Algonquin, led to an identity crisis that was to hold Claire back for years. She describes how "A lady came up to me at The Algonquin and explained that she had thought I was another British jazz singer with a similar sounding name. Every time we put in a request for me to perform the answer came back 'No!' It’s been a long time coming, but I eventually made it there, and it was all very exciting "
There is a distinct feeling of ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’ to Claire’s Oak Room debut, both in the choice of venue - once home to the legendary Dorothy Parker and her fabulous Round Table - and the fact that Claire’s latest CD, He Never Mentioned Love, is a tribute to Shirley Horn, her inspiration and musical muse. An album track entitled "Slowly, But Shirley" was written by Claire herself. As we talk, it’s clear that Claire has had the time of her life at the Algonquin. She’s sassy, direct and very, very funny with a lack of guile that is totally endearing. "I had really good people around me," says Claire. "I took my own bass player and pianist, Laurence Cottle and Gareth Williams, and the whole thing was amazing. Tony Bennett is a great friend of mine and he came along to my first night. It was a golden seal of approval. He said fabulous things about me that I could dine out on in the press. Friends of mine had flown in from all over the world from LA to Ireland, which was fantastic because with audiences of just eighty people, there was an intimacy to the venue, and I loved that. That immediacy with an audience is fantastic, I like to see the whites of their eyes," she laughs.
The venue itself, with all its’ history, was something of a challenge, but Claire was unphased. "The L-shaped room really tested my ability to work a space. There is a slightly museumy air to the Algonquin and a genteel crowd to be won over, but we took in an electric bass and brought the whole place into the twenty-first century," Claire says. And as if that wasn’t enough, this beautiful, smoky-voiced blonde carried off a number entitled "My Dissipation," which raised elegantly shaped Oak Room eyebrows. "I told them that it had been translated from the Portuguese by my Brazilian au pair," says Claire. "It’s a novelty song, all about smoking crack cocaine - and yeah, it was a bit naughty, but the more they didn’t get it, the more I had to do it." The reviews came thick and fast, with New York critic Will Friedwald commenting wryly, "A world class performer jazz can be sung with a British accent." Whatever next, Shakespeare in an American one? Claire’s response? "Oh, you know, I’m aware that it’s a bit ‘coals to Newcastle’ bringing jazz to New York, but I was proud to be flying the flag." And how.
Claire’s connection to Shirley Horn is a virtual one. "We never met, our paths never crossed, I did have an opportunity to meet her towards the end of her life, but no it never happened," Claire laments. "I ‘knew’ her through my best friend who managed her, so I know all about her, all kinds of little details about her, but we never actually met. She became an obsession of mine." Claire admits that the ‘mistress of slow-slow-slow’, "moves me more than any other singer. Her phrasing is sublime, so’s her choice of material. She’s hip and she doesn’t know it. She floors me. I’m very, very moved by that." Claire continues, "She taught me so much. I analyzed, studied, watched and re-wound videos and DVD’s. I even took to trying her signature ‘beer with Drambuie chaser’ before gigs for a while to get that authentic ‘Shirley’ sound, but I couldn’t get away with that now. Plus she smoked like a chimney. Not something I ever managed."
Claire’s real life collaborations with other musicians are many and varied and her choice of material reflects this ability to defy categorisation, whilst remaining true to her jazz instincts. She moves effortlessly from Harold Arlen, to Artie Shaw, Tom Waits, via Hendrix, Todd Rundgren, Noel Gallagher and Nick Drake to Elvis Costello, Joni Mitchell and Leonard Bernstein, making them all her own. A chance meeting with the legendary composer, Richard Rodney Bennett, was also the catalyst for three albums: Too Darn Hot, Secret Love and When Lights Are Low a ‘dream team’ collaboration for Claire. "We were both at the same concert hall and got talking in a little club at the back of the venue. I just fell in love with him. He bigs me up at every opportunity. I really owe him a lot. There have been many, many major concerts with him all over Europe. He worked with Shirley Horn too."
On tracks that I listen to, their voices meld seamlessly with breathtaking ease. Another, much shorter lived collaboration also proved a great success in the form of a duet with the great John Martyn. He and Claire perform his "Man in the Station" on her Perfect Alibi album to great critical acclaim. Claire remembers it well, "When John turned up at the session, he’d been in a fight, had hurt his hand and was so drunk that he fell off his chair. But he was just gorgeous and kept saying, "Thanks, this is lovely." I’ve been so lucky like that. He’s a genius. It was such a big deal."
Claire’s singing roots take her back to her London childhood. "I joined a Saturday morning dance and drama club and they discovered that I could sing. I found my voice at the age of eight, nine, ten it wasn’t ‘hey, check me out, I can improvise, just more that I had a big mouth and I could project. I remember being lead singer in a production of ‘Cats’ in Wimbledon Town Hall. That was it really, then I was always their lead singer " Serious lessons with Verona Chard in London and Marilyn Johnson in New York followed.
Claire is based in Brighton now, an hour away from London by train, nestled by the sea on the South Coast. It’s where she goes to recharge her batteries and spend time with her little girl, aged four. "We’ve been here for eleven years now. It’s like Toy Town compared with London, and there’s a terrific pace of life here easy living."
As well as singing and songwriting, Claire is a co-presenter on the Radio 3 ‘Jazz Line Up’ show. "I got the job when it first started seven years ago. It really is a ‘dream job’ and has led to me meeting some of my absolute heroes, including the late, great Michael Brecker, Tania Maria, Mike Stern and Andre Previn, to name just a few. I split the show with Julian Joseph. We do a month turn around and record two shows at a time. We sometimes do live shows, which is always a thrill, and the programme is now an hour and a half long so we’ve got a great listenership."
Those wanting to catch Claire on the other side of the pond won’t have to wait long for her return. She’ll be at the legendary Lincoln Center in New York City in late September. "The show with Ian (Shaw) has been on the cards for a couple of years," Claire explains. "The producer, Todd Barkin, has been a fan of mine for a long time, so it was great to meet him at long last on my last trip to New York and sign the contract! It’s all part of the prestigious ‘Women in Jazz’ festival and some great names are playing all very exciting."
Other exciting dates for the future include a show at London’s Barbican concert hall, opening for Kurt Elling. "I’m a big fan of Kurt, and have interviewed him for Jazz Line Up so maybe we’ll do a duet? I hope so! Anyway, I’ll be frocked up and in killer Jimmy Choo’s so he better watch out " And with that the least diva-ish of all divas is off to pick up her daughter from the childminder and head off to her home by the sea. Maybe it is just possible to have it all. Shirley and Dorothy would most definitely approve.