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

If only it could have been longer.  In the space of barely an hour we witnessed a masterclass in how to fuse jazz and chamber music.  Few musicians have flitted back and forth across the tracks with as much aplomb as Richard Rodney Bennett, a composer who loves to croon a Gershwin standard in a piano bar.

This late-night celebration of his 75th birthday, with a contingent from the Nash Ensemble and guests including the fiery saxophonist Nigel Hitchcock, was a delight.  By the end my companion was rattling her imaginary pearls with the best of them.

Bennett's collaboration with the singer Claire Martin grows more assured with each passing year.  His long-running partnership with the American cabaret star, the late Mary Cleere Haran, reached rare heights: Haran, who died in a cycling accident earlier this year, had the presence of a seasoned actress.  But Martin's jazz virtuosity adds another dimension.  When her honeyed timbre slips into the lower register she captures the romance of a Ben Webster tenor solo.

Only a couple of songs from the duo's fine new album, dedicated to the music of Cy Coleman, made an appearance, although the title number Witchcraft was indisputably a highlight.  The emphasis instead was on stylish, pared-down versions of arrangements that Bennett created for the Nash Ensemble and Eartha Kitt 40 years ago.  Flautist Philippa Davies and harpist Lucy Wakeford wove shimmering colours as drummer Matt Skelton and double-bass player Steve Watts laid down an unhurried backdrop.

John Wilson conducted with his usual eye for detail.  My Ship, It Might As Well Be Spring and September Song had a jewel-like beauty, and My Man's Gone Now struck a perfect balance between bluesy swing and classical formality.  Martin was even more affecting on her encore, as she and Bennett tip-toed through What'll I Do? Just the kind of intelligent cross-fertilisation that deserves to find a niche in this summer's jazz festivals.

25 March 2011