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Claire Martin - A Modern Art - thejazzmann.com


07 October 2009
thejazzmann.com
Ian Mann
4 Stars

Claire Martin has long been recognised as one of Britain's best jazz singers. Although London born she was signed by the Glasgow based Linn label in 1991 following a successful appearance at the city's jazz festival. She has since produced a string of albums for the label covering a wide range of material from jazz standards to interpretations of contemporary pop material. Although never quite achieving wholesale crossover success Martin has always been something of a critical favourite and her new album "A Modern Art" might just be her best album yet. 


Martin is unusual in the world of British jazz in being with the same record label for such a long time. She obviously has a good relationship with Linn, who she claims give her complete artistic freedom, and she has had the opportunity to record frequently. There have been occasions in the past when she has veered too close to pop and MOR but on the whole her jazz credentials have never seriously been in doubt. 

"A Modern Art" is the work of a mature talent and the success of the album is helped by the presence of a terrific band, many of them long term Martin collaborators. Bassist Laurence Cottle also acts as arranger and producer and he is joined by pianist Gareth Williams, guitarist Phil Robson and percussionist Sola Akingbola. Drumming duties are shared between Chris Dagley and young rising star James Maddren with Nigel Hitchcock (alto sax) and Mark Nightingale (trombone) forming a dynamic horn section.

The material is the familiar eclectic Martin mix of jazz standards and more contemporary material from some of the singer's favourite songwriters. There are also couple of originals co-written by Martin and Cottle, the title track and "Edge Ways". 

The album kicks off in terrific style with one of the only two standards on the album, Rodgers & Hart's "Everything I've Got Belongs To You". Cottle's funky arrangement is driven by the punchy horns of Hitchcock and Nightingale. Martin's vocals are simultaneously worldly wise and flirtatious with Hitchcock's alto solo taking the instrumental honours. It's an attention grabbing opener and great fun. 

"So Twentieth Century" is the first of two songs written by Pat Coleman and lyricist Colin Lazzerini, one time administrator of the legendary Loose Tubes. It's a witty, pithy song with another great Cottle arrangement. Martin's vocals are knowing and sophisticated and there are sparkling solos from Hitchcock and Williams.

The beautiful ballad "Love Is Real" is included as a tribute to the late Esbjorn Svensson. The song was written in collaboration with his E.S.T. band mates Dan Berglund and Magnus Ohrstrom plus Charlie Haden's son Josh. Martin gives an assured reading of the song making it a fitting homage to one of the most influential musicians of recent times.

One of Martin's favourite songwriters is Mark Winkler whose "lowercase" was co-written with Lori Barth and saxophonist Joshua Redman. Taken at a swinging mid tempo it's another tour de force for Martin and something of a technical challenge for the singer I suspect. Williams and Hitchcock again impress instrumentally and Martin demonstrates her ability to scat.

The album's two originals are scheduled back to back. "A Modern Art" reflects on the position of jazz in the context of current celebrity culture. It's musically complex but contains a very pertinent message, Martin is a woman on a mission. Instrumentally Hitchcock and Williams excel as usual.

"Edge Ways" is a jibe at an egocentric would be suitor. It's a clever little song with a Brazilian lilt and a delightfully woozy solo from Nightingale on trombone.

"Love Of Another" is a brooding break up song written by Norwegian singer Rebecca Bakken in collaboration with her ex partner Wolfgang Muthspiel. Whatever the sexual politics of the situation this is a dark song that explores the conflicting emotions of love and hate felt by the cuckolded Brakken. It's raw stuff, superbly interpreted by Martin.

After this Coleman and Lazzerini's second wry and witty offering "Totally" almost comes as light relief but it's fiendishly clever stuff. As on "Love Is Real" the instrumentation features organ, presumably played by the uncredited Williams.

The mood of urban sophistication is continued with a slyly funky arrangement of Cy Coleman and Michael Stewart's "Everybody Today Is Turning On" with guitarist Phil Robson making his presence felt. Martin's playful delivery brings out the verbal dexterity of the lyrics. Whether you interpret the song as a hipster anthem or as an anti drug tirade it's still great stuff.

Michael Franks is another of Martin's song writing favourites. Cottle's lazy ,languorous arrangement of "Sunday Morning Here With You" with a beautifully relaxed vocal performance from Martin captures the mood of the song beautifully. Akingbola's shimmering percussion adds to the atmosphere, along with Cottle's liquid electric bass, as Robson's delicate guitar dovetails with Williams on piano. 

"Promises" by the song writing team of Christina Bjordal and Harald Levang raises the tempo again but is probably the least distinctive item on the record. Not that it's anything less than good, enlivened by a typically ebullient Williams solo.

Martin also tackles "The Things I Miss The Most" by Donald Fagen and Walter Becker of Steely Dan. It's an intriguing arrangement with Williams and Nightingale prominent but maybe I'm too familiar with the original for this to work completely for me. Also I think of it as a very "male" song and I'm not sure if it survives the gender switch. A brave and praise worthy attempt nevertheless.

More successful is the wistful "As We Live And Breathe" by Lauren Kinhan and Eve Nelson, Martin's friends from New York Voices.

The album closes with David Cantor's "Nirvana" conversationally but movingly sung by Martin with only Robson's guitar for company. Another song of reflection and lost love it concludes the album on a sad but beautiful note.

"A Modern Art" is the work of a seasoned talent. Martin's song choices are virtually all winners but steer well away from the over familiar chestnuts of the "Great American Songbook". The contemporary material Martin has chosen is of a uniformly high standard and fits superbly into a jazz context. Although their styles are completely different Martin sometimes reminds me of the folk singer Christine Collister in her ability to spot a good song and make it her own. In Martin's case the superb support she receives from her backing musicians is also an important factor.

This is a record that has the potential to appeal to a wide audience without ever sacrificing it's jazz credibility. Martin's mission as described in the title track is fully accomplished here. "A Modern Art" indeed.


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