Claire Martin - He Never Mentioned Love - Rainbow Network
I should preface this review with a list of my disqualifications for the job. For starters, I'm not really a big jazz fan. Actually, I'm one of those ignoramuses who thinks it's just tinnitus tarted up as musical genius. Yes, I know, it's a terminal cultural cliché that's been said before and will, without question, be said again, but it's genuinely what I've always thought and no matter how many nights I've alcopopped the night away at Ronnie Scott's my opinion has remained stubbornly unshifting. Ok, I can get onboard with Prince's brand of jazz-jacked freewheeling funk, but that doesn't really count because it's not the pure stuff.
Secondly, despite being long-established and hailed as "The First Lady of British Jazz" as well as hauling in an impressive booty of prestigious industry awards, Claire Martin's career, pre-research, was something of a mystery to me, which is a polite way of saying I'd never heard of her.
Ditto Shirley Horn, who may be a legendary jazz singer beloved by the jazzerati and known to almost everyone else on earth, but to me she's simply somebody with a comedy surname. I know, I know, I've known for some time I'm a childish idiot. Ordinarily this wouldn't matter but this latest Martin release is a tribute to the late singer and her work. So there you have it: philistine be my name.
Ever one to seek out the positive spin, maybe being so unclued-up could actually be something of a plus because I come to the album with the enthusiasm of the newbie and baggage-free. Well, not completely: I still have my jazz-as-musical-schizophrenia prejudice in place. It's all the more remarkable, then, that He Never Mentioned Love utterly hooked me in. What is impressive is the range of Martin's voice which is, by turns, soaring, sensuous, plaintive and powerful. The breadth of her voice can be heard in spades on the title track; it ebbs and flows, rising and falling like an ocean wave, occasionally crashing against the rocks when the song's emotional economy demands it, all aided and abetted by the most beautiful, evocative musical arrangement.
In fact, there isn't a misfire on the entire album as Martin putties the tracks into masterclasses of vocal versatility. From the heartfelt longing of ‘You're Nearer' to the finely-struck storytelling on ‘LA Breakdown' or the surefooted technical prowess of ‘Everything Must Change,' her ability to morph her vocal to a track's emotional handbrake turns bristles throughout and, unlike even some the world's best singers, she never overdoes it, the feeling comes from a real place and doesn't veer towards the clichéd comfort zone of the overblown.
Martin's metier is subtle nuance, not obvious brassy theatricality. In some ways, she's reminiscent of one the all-time great voices of the music canon, Aretha Franklin, in the way she can gear-switch from emotion-laced whisper to full-throttled, throaty, reach-the-back-seats controlled explosions.
Significantly, the album feels fresh, which is a hard ask for a tribute album. Whereas most homage projects feel like a sort of artistic necrophilia, dogged by the looming ghost of talents past, this comes over as an individual take on a fellow star's legacy.
Ok, as a non-jazzophile I'm hardly in a position to compare and contrast the two artists, but maybe that's an advantage because I'm not spooked by the spectre in the room; I come to the album as blank canvas and, trust me, they don't come blanker then me.
Most importantly, if it can reel in a thicko like me who thinks jazz is nothing more than lift muzak then it really is mission accomplished by a clearly accomplished artist.