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Claire Martin - Live at The Oak Room - New York Observer

For bracing jazz and potable musical phrasing, run don't walk to the Algonquin this week for a lesson in great singing from the British sensation Claire Martin. Her appearances in New York are rare. Don't even think about missing this one. The focus is on the dapper, sophisticated songs of the late Cy Coleman and his astutely seasoned lady lyricists-Peggy Lee, Carolyn Lee and Dorothy Fields. A few guys made the grade, too. A highlight is "With Every Breath I Take," with David Zippel's haunting lyrics, from the Broadway score of City of Angels. And it doesn't get any better than Cy's collaboration with Joseph McCarthy (the songwriter, not the satanic senator) on "I'm Gonna Laugh You Right Out of My Life," a song for all seasons and all people, regardless of age, who have a little life experience under their belts. Ms. Martin sings them all, both solo and with her veteran accompanist Richard Rodney Bennett, until you don't think you ever want to hear them any other way.

Instead of projecting her throaty voice into the mike, this splendid and rarefied stylist seems to coax every breath from inside the mike into the amplified open air. Surprise is the key element in her singing, even on raucous hip-grinders like "Nobody Does It Like Me" from Seesaw. Composed and unruffled even by Mr. Bennett's most challenging tempo changes, she's a vision as well as a musical prodigy. A cross between Michelle Pfeiffer and Virginia Madsen, she's so beautiful, focused and expressive that you can't take your eyes off her, even when she's not singing at all. She can cut words in half an octave apart, like Annie Ross, stretch vowels dreamily or turn plosives into three syllables depending on her mood. Nothing comes out exactly as expected, whether she's milking the nasty nectar from "When in Rome" or breaking your heart on the falsely cynical "Would You Believe?" (Would you believe I don't give a damn?/ Well, you're as big a fool as I am"). In addition to sending chills down a listener's spine as one of the most original and hypnotic singers I have come across in years, she is a tremendous actress. An ace composer of classical music, jazz tunes and Oscar-nominated movie scores, Mr. Bennett is an agile partner, crooning rustily as dry as a martini, playing nimble chords and savoring songs like best friends. Unfortunately, he sings some of them in a voice that is often barely audible, and something alarming is happening to his enunciation. Still, he's a literate and supportive piano-bench diva who can always be counted on to unveil a few songs that are welcome strangers. Intimacy is his forte, best exemplified when the two artists stray from the Cy Coleman canon at the end to brilliantly conjure a witchcraft of their own on "The Very Thought of You" and "I Thought About You." For cosmopolitan tastes, this wise and cultivated engagement is altogether satisfying, heavenly and fulfilling. After so many cabaret acts, I leave feeling cheated. But with Claire Martin and Richard Rodney Bennett, the rewards are bountiful.

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The New York Observer
02 June 2009