Claire Martin and Richard Rodney Bennett - When Lights Are Low - The Times
A New Yorker by adoption, Richard Rodney Bennett used to come to town in the company of the sublime Mary Cleere Haran, one of the most immaculate cabaret singers Manhattan has seen in years. Although their partnership is no more, the good news is that Bennett has found a first-rate replacement in our own Claire Martin, a performer more rooted in jazz but blessed with an undeniable gift for unadorned storytelling.
Martin needs no introduction at this stage in her career. Over the past decade she has established herself as the most intelligent and assured singer in the country. All the same, the opportunity to hear her in this pared-down setting is not to be missed. If some of the arrangements on her last album, "Secret Love", failed to do her justice, Bennett's piano playing generates endless surprises. The result is an urbane but sprightly conversation between two artists at the top of their form.
Their new recording, "When Lights Are Low", places the emphasis on standards, the jaunty My One and Only casting a nostalgic glance in the direction of Ella Fitzgerald's classic Gershwin collaboration with the fastidious Ellis Larkins. Baby Plays Around, a rare excursion into modern pop, turns out to be perfectly suited to Bennett's unassuming vocal style; the Elvis Costello-Cait O'Riordan ballad has just the right veneer of bruised romance.
The show's repertoire roamed beyond the album's playlist. It's impossible to grow bored of hearing the languorous Martin prowl through the lyrics of Joni Mitchell's Be Cool, while her admiration for the late June Christy yielded a haunting version of Something Cool.
This residency marks the reopening of Pizza on the Park's Music Room after it was closed for refurbishments. (Long-time visitors may need a while to grow used to the new decor on the bandstand.) The high point of the programme came after Bennett had indulged himself on his favourite Noël Coward song, World Weary. As the tempo slowed, Martin gave us a shimmering reading of The Very Thought of You which gradually entwined itself around Bennett's rendition of Johnny Mercer's foot-loose lament, I Thought About You.
Martin's warm, husky voice never strains for effect. She trusts the song to speak for her. * * * *