Claire Martin & Richard Rodney Bennett - Live Review - The New York Times

Just a Couple of Sports, Merrily Singing Along

If it is not their British accents, what accounts for the way British jazz and pop singers filter songs through a screen of hauteur? That slightly blasé affect tinged Claire Martin and Richard Rodney Bennett's opening-night performance of their breezy Irving Berlin show, "A Couple of Swells," at the Oak Room of the Algonquin Hotel on Tuesday.

Adopting an amused distance from your subject is not a bad thing, I should add. It encourages a singer like Ms. Martin to break through the gap and make tellingly assertive gestures, as she did in a beautiful rendition of "What'll I Do?" Simply by bearing down on the title phrase, as if she were pleading to a friend for advice, she applied her stamp to a standard that everyone else interprets from a long-distance perspective.

Ms. Martin is a complicated agglomeration of styles. Her smoky, sensual voice echoes Cleo Laine, another British singer who, even in moments of turmoil, maintains a certain loftiness. If Ms. Martin's scat improvisations were mostly embellishments applied to the ends of phrases, at their most developed (during a performance of "Cheek to Cheek") they suggested a singer who has studied Anita O'Day. In other words, Ms. Martin swings moderately. If Mr. Bennett were a less-polite accompanist, she might venture more deeply into improvisation.

Mr. Bennett, who specializes in suave pianistic chitchat, supported Ms. Martin with sophisticated noodlings that kept the mood airy and light. He also joined her for several duets (including a clever merger of "Let's Face the Music and Dance" with "Let Yourself Go") and took some raspy solo vocals. His most engaging performance was a propulsive rendition of the slightly racy "He Ain't Got Rhythm," originally sung by Alice Faye in the 1937 movie "On the Avenue." A man who doesn't have rhythm, the song declares, "is the loneliest man in town."

Most of show's other standout moments belonged to Ms. Martin, whose renditions of "Better Luck Next Time" and "Fools Fall in Love" revealed the heart of a saloon torch beating inside the chipper jazz playmate. But for the most part, these two pals embodied exactly what the show's title says they are: a couple of swells having a relaxed fine time.

"A Couple of Swells" runs through June 10 at the Oak Room of the Algonquin Hotel, 59 West 44th Street, Manhattan; (212) 419-9331,

New York Times
01 June 2011