Claire Martin - Too Darn Hot! - Audiophile Audition

As soon as I heard the saxophone burst that powers the opening of Something's Coming (from West Side Story), I knew this disc was something very special, and not just another rehashing of tired old standards given quirky treatments by some new upstart trying to make a name for herself. The tune swings hard - during the instrumental break during the bridge, it's almost impossible to resist the urge to get up and dance! The brashness, confidence and total control that Claire Martin exudes suits the song perfectly - it's still faithful to the Bernstein/Sondheim tradition, but she sings it like she owns it!

The tracks here are an eclectic mix, ranging from the familiar to the obscure, with well- and lesser-known songs from Broadway and Tin Pan Alley, along with jazz standards; even covers of tunes made popular by artists as diverse as Buddy Holly to Nat King Cole and Joni Mitchell, with a few originals thrown in for good measure. The clever arrangements the songs are given only serve to add to your enjoyment, and elevate them far beyond the usual fare. When this album swings, as is often the case, it swings hard - due in no small part to the snappy piano playing of Gareth Williams and the excellent rhythm section featuring bassist Geoff Gascoyne and drummer Clark Tracey, who anchor most of the tracks. And Claire Martin's voice - oh, what a voice! From sweet, to sassy and sultry - when she tells you its too darn hot, you feel the temperature rise.

There are tender moments - who would have expected a cover of the old Buddy Holly tune It's Raining In My Heart? Richard Rodney Bennett, whose jazz credentials make him the perfect arranger, gives it a string quartet treatment that's sheer perfection. He offers a similarly sympathetic arrangement on the chestnut When I Fall In Love, that, along with Gareth Williams achingly beautiful piano solo and Claire Martin's heartfelt vocal, lifts the song above the more maudlin treatment it's often given. These Foolish Things, another song most often associated with Nat King Cole, is given a snappy - rather than the more commonly - sappy arrangement, and bassist Gascoyne and drummer Tracey each take several nice bars during the bridge.

The album's centerpiece and blockbuster is the old standard Black Coffee, but Ms. Martin is not content to sit around and bemoan her sad predicament ala Peggy Lee or Ella Fitzgerald - she's been done wrong by her man, and she lets you know it in no uncertain terms! Richard Cottle gets a nice turn on Hammond B-3, along with some excellent tenor sax work by Nigel Hitchcock. An absolute knockout, this tune alone is worth the price of admission of this superb disc.

Sonically, this disc is nothing short of stunning - the surround mix is just splendid, with all the instruments spread nicely in an arc across the soundstage from front to sides. The individual instruments have a very palpable realism, but the real star here is Claire Martin's voice, which is mixed perfectly between front and center channels - the illusion is uncanny, and her voice just seems to float in space in front of you, such that you'd swear she was in the room with you - it's the most realistic center channel presentation I've heard yet, and easily betters any of the hundreds of SACDs in my current collection. The album isn't entirely acoustic, either - electric bass and piano (and the aforementioned Hammond B-3) are used on a few songs, and there's obviously some judicious use of reverb (mostly noticeable on the opening track) - everything is tastefully incorporated into the final mix. There isn't much in the way of source information for the tapes, but with a reference-quality disc such as this one, that doesn't even need to be a consideration. Very, very highly recommended!

Audiophile Audition
30 April 2002