Claire Martin & Richard Rodney Bennett - Live Review - The Wall Street Journal
03 June 2011The Wall Street Journal
Irving Berlin was obsessed with simplicity; playwright Anita Loos
famously described how she witnessed him endlessly rewriting and
rethinking a song to make it as simple and direct as possible. He would
have loved the British team of singer Claire Martin and
pianist-occasional vocalist Richard Rodney Bennett, who are doing a
program of his songs at the Oak Room. In the case of this duo, voice
(usually one at a time) and piano are all you need; bass, drums or horns
would only be intrusive. The open format exposes both the performers
and the songs-there's no place to hide, no additional instruments to
cover up any shortcomings, and it wouldn't work if Berlin's songs
weren't so brilliantly constructed to begin with. The result is a kind
of perfection that's anything but minimalist. Further, Mr. Bennett in
particular shows that even Berlin's least known works, like "Lonely
Heart" (from "Thousands Cheer"), are as expertly constructed as the
Claire Martin pays tribute to Irving Berlin at the Oak Room.
is often listed as a member of the famous Algonquin Round Table, those
celebrated wits of the Jazz Age who convened in the very same Oak Room.
Yet I don't imagine the songwriter spent a lot time guzzling cocktails
and trading bon mots; he was much too busy writing songs. As Mr. Bennett
points out in the show, the goal Berlin set for himself was to compose
one new song every day. He may not have reached it, but by the time he
was finished he had written what is estimated at about 1,500 songs.
In another famous anecdote, Berlin is having a drink with his fellow
songwriter Cole Porter, and one of them asks, "Can you imagine that
sometimes it takes two guys to write a song?" In being able to write
both lyrics and music so brilliantly, Berlin was a kind of one-man duet.
Throughout the opening-night set at the Algonquin, Ms. Martin and Mr.
Bennett (who have just released "Witchcraft," a new album on which they
give comparable treatment to the marvelous music of Cy Coleman), showed
the benefits of the duo concept.
It isn't just the tension between voice and piano, but the amazing
ways in which Ms. Martin uses her deep, sultry contralto to convey
contrast. She has a sense of dynamics inspired by Tony Bennett (who I've
seen at her performances), and knows precisely when to sound light and
when to sound heavy, when to sound sultry and when to sound breezy.
Rhythmically, she and Mr. Bennett (who, in his other career, is a
Knighted composer of film scores and classical music) are even able to
articulate the subtle difference between syncopation (as on the earlier
songs like "When the Midnight Choo Choo Leaves for Alabam") and swing
(as on the later songs). She sings "Love, You Didn't Do Right By Me"
like a semi-comic air of self-deprecation rather than a typical torch
song, and with a very dramatic pause after the first word. At one point
on "Steppin' Out With My Baby" (one of many songs the pair played from
"Easter Parade") Mr. Bennett accompanied her with just his left hand,
which conveyed the feeling of a voice-and-bass duet.
Another duality is the contrast between the classics, like "Blue
Skies" (which Ms. Martin sings with a scat chorus, à la Ella
Fitzgerald's Songbook version), and the obscurities, like Ms. Martin's
"Fools Fall in Love" (from Lee Wiley's Berlin album) and Mr. Bennett's
"He Ain't Got Rhythm," which might be viewed as a caustic,
glass-half-empty answer to the Gershwin brothers. The set also
alternates between full songs and well-constructed medleys, like a
mash-up of songs about giving in to temptation, "Get Thee Behind Me,
Satan" and "I Got Lost in His Arms." There's also a medley of "Isn't
This a Lovely Day?" and "It's a Lovely Day Today." I was wondering why
they'd omitted "It's a Lovely Day Tomorrow" but then I realized that
everything has its limits.
Related LinksClaire MartinRichard Rodney BennettWitchcraft