Witchcraft is the result of the dynamic collaboration between Claire Martin and Richard Rodney Bennett. This album contains a thoughtful selection of songs from the Cy Coleman songbook. Together, this collection weaves together the opposing talents of the sultry jazz sensation Claire Martin and the polished, savvy keyboard skills and compositional insight of Richard Rodney Bennett. Martin's strength as one of the best interpreters of the Great American Songbook shines through in this recording. The smoky elegance of her vocal sculpts itself around the smooth flowing textures of the piano accompaniment and the occasional vocal repartee of Bennett. The result of this established partnership is mesmerising music that takes you back to a wonderful and simpler time of yesteryear.
The hackneyed shorthand for any creative partnership - but particularly one like this - is that it embodies the principle of yin and yang. The idea of complementary opposites working together is a beguiling one but there's a tendency, in the West, at least, to over-emphasise the opposition and not pay enough attention to the way the different elements interconnect. And out they trot like paired dancers in a cotillion: male and female, dark and light, instinct and reason. Or we can glide past the Chinese philosophy and look at how the idea might be (mis-)applied to the two artists represented here: ‘composition' and ‘jazz', order and improvisation, rules and mischief.
Doesn't work, does it? The partnership of Claire Martin and Richard Rodney Bennett illustrates the principle of yin and yang perfectly, but only if you concentrate on what they do together rather than what they seem to represent as individuals or as representatives on what everyone still seems to consider two different and competing strands in music. We still, whatever our loyalties, faintly mistrust any attempt at collaboration between jazz and classical: the conservatory people think Grappelli's articulation is sloppy and his bow-work all over the place; the jazz people wish Menuhin would lighten up a bit - nobody seemed to notice that both of them were beaming indulgently and that it sounded great.
The partnership of Claire Martin and Richard Rodney Bennett now goes back long enough to merit the qualifier ‘established'. There was no formal set-up, though. ‘I'd heard of Richard Rodney Bennett - mainly because of his work with the late, great Marion Montgomery. I'd been to see her a few times at the Pizza on the Park. She had such a great swing time feel and chose sophisticated songs and I was quite in awe of both of them. Then I met him in Glasgow in the early 90's. He was checking out the Royal Concert Hall for a future date there and I was singing in one of the side rooms with my trio. He came up to me afterwards and said all sorts of lovely things. We proceeded to smoke cigarettes and drink vodka and became firm friends. That was a lucky night for me. Pure fluke.'
Apart from the sophisticated crowd who'd hipped to Bennett's work with the late, and yes, great Marion Montgomery, most casual listeners knew him as the acclaimed composer of film music, and particularly the wildly exciting and utterly atmospheric soundtrack to Murder on the Orient Express without which that elaborate set-piece clunks to the carpet like a length of lead pipe, or your Cluedo weapon of choice. Bennett is unique on the contemporary scene in having shaped a language that embraces high modernism - what used to be called the ‘avant-garde' - as well as jazz and popular song. It's hard to think of another composer who's done it, or done it so well. Peter Maxwell Davies wrote Miss Donnithorne's Maggot and a suite from The Boyfriend but that doesn't quite count, and we should be getting into the habit of thinking that a major composer is simply slumming - indulging himself - when (s)he writes a popular work. It's a bit like believing the story that Tennyson wrote dirty limericks. If only he had. Perhaps the most realistic comparison is with Shostakovich, who isn't all dark symphonic quiddity but also wrote music of delicious lightness. The only problem with the comparison is that it's impossible to imagine Richard Rodney Bennett taking instructions from Stalin or from any of the little Stalins in the music business.
‘We share a sense of humour and we laugh a lot. However, Richard is the boss and I'm fully aware that there's no point arguing the toss over material or musical ideas he doesn't agree with. Anything I may suggest that's not to his liking is met with a simple "No" and that's that!' Claire apparently does a very good impression of the composer in imperious form. But here we are slipping into a situation where the classical composer represents authority and The Law and the jazz singer is giggling and messing about at assembly. Anyone who has worked with Claire Martin or spent any time watching her perform knows that her playfulness is backed with genuine musical authority. The days when comparison with the great jazz singers - Ella, Anita, Carmen, Shirley, Abbey, Betty, and Marion, too - was either wishful thinking or a wish for the future, those days have gone. Few contemporary singers can claim her authority and presence, or the unselfconscious ease with which she has taken the repertory of modern jazz beyond Broadway. It wasn't a cliché to cover Nick Drake songs when Claire began to do it, and few have ever done it better.
Nevertheless, for all the carping of jazz writers and some players who believe that the Great American Songbook is overdue an overhaul, the classic songwriters of the past are unlikely to be thrown overboard for a while yet. They are still the mother lode when it comes to song, part of a craft tradition that isn't terribly well understood now that writing a song is considered to be equivalent to hitching a hem on some part of your secret self. The classic songwriters were expected to write in character but not about themselves. They were required to be witty, and to work hard, not to lie back on a couch. And their craft presupposed an understanding of music that moved across the genres. George Gershwin and Cole Porter understood Brahms, Debussy and Stravinsky, quoted the ‘Moonlight Sonata' and could even make reference to the ‘Day of Wrath' motif when they needed to suggest conflict or impending disaster. Richard Rodney Bennett has that ability. Though he has a substantial catalogue of formal scores, many of them for voices, it is in his jazz playing and accompaniment that his musical intelligence shines through, an approach to song that takes the song as a whole rather than as a stepladder of ‘changes', AABA structure, or verses and chorus. ‘Singing with Richard is - to quote Chris Connor about someone else - like "singing on a cloud". He knows every verse to every song (jazz musicians rarely know these) and of course every lyric and alternative lyric that may exist. His knowledge of the human voice is astonishing and his time is strong and unfailing. He plays with such romance and class and every now and then he'll play an arpeggio which will whisk me away! His arranging style is quite unique and his ability to work key changes into our songs is quite brilliant and so seamlessly done that you don't even realise they have happened!'
Witchcraft, of course, illustrates more than one yin/yang partnership. Cy Coleman started out as a trio performer and had a substantial success with a formula that notionally influenced Nat Cole and others. He actually started out as Seymor Kaufmann, but that's another, archetypally American story. Good as the trio was, what completed him as an artist was his encounter and partnership with Carolyn Leigh, a delightful toughie from the Bronx, who learned about language writing copy for ad agencies and delivered one of the best and most underrated shows of all in How Now, Dow Jones, with music by Elmer Bernstein. Her songs with Cy Coleman are classics, though, with romance and realism, cynicism and hope, chastened optimism and fatalism in perfect balance. Her work on Wildcat (which included ‘Hey Look Me Over' and originally starred Lucille Ball) and on the Tony award-winning Little Me (the pneumatic tale of ‘Belle Poitrine'! be still, our beating hearts) established her as one of the slyest lyricists around. Coleman went on later to work with Dorothy Fields. Whether this too was astrological destiny or a fluke like Claire Martin's meeting with Richard Rodney Bennett is hard to say, but Fields's legendary response to the initial request - ‘Thank God, someone asked!' - probably says it all.
Thank God, likewise, that Richard Rodney Bennett went over and made himself known at the Concert Hall in Glasgow. Without that moment of chivalry (and he is now a knight of the profession), one of the most engaging, intelligent and consistent partnerships in contemporary music would not exist. Even if you're only starting here - in which case you have some delightful catching up to do - you can be assured that, in Coleman-ish phrase, and one that most fans will have seen galloping over the horizon: ‘The Best is Yet To Come'.
© Brian Morton, 2010