Claire Martin: ‘I’m horrified at the stuff the empire did, but…’ 

    The royally recognised singer talks about doing orchestral arrangements of music by her great kindred spirit, Richard Rodney Bennett

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    Scott Dunn and Claire Martin. Photo by Nadja von Massow

    “It’s our heartfelt tribute to our dear friend, a love letter if you like from us to Richard, and I’m really thrilled with how it turned out,” says Claire Martin of I Watch You Sleep on which she and arranger Scott Dunn celebrate the work of pianist-composer Richard Rodney Bennett, who died in 2012.

    “It took a lot of getting together but now we’ve got the satisfaction of going ‘We’ve done it!’ And the fact we were able to do it with such an amazing orchestra [The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra] is an added bonus. I’m still pinching myself.”

    Martin toured and recorded with Bennett, who was acclaimed in the jazz, classical, cabaret and film soundtrack worlds. She still regards him as her mentor. “He was a fount of knowledge of all types of music. He sat at the piano with me and showed me things, he helped me with songs, singers, keys, performance tips, he helped me with listening, the importance of rehearsing, he opened doors for me, he did arrangements for me, he was just totally supportive and championed me. When he went on Desert Island Discs [in 1997] he chose one of my tracks [Bye-bye Country Boy] which did me the world of good. He was all-giving.”

    Martin clearly adored Bennett. “He was hilarious, first and foremost. He loved to giggle and he loved to read and he was a very good artist, forever doing collages. He loved going to see friends sing and hanging out at clubs. He was a genius but he wore it very lightly. He was so unpretentious and loved everybody for who they were and never judged. He was a really good and loyal friend. We all miss him terribly.”

    On one occasion, when Martin was visiting Bennett in his New York apartment, Paul McCartney popped round. “He had brought Richard a painting to say thank you for helping him with his ballet music. He spent a couple of hours there and it was very relaxed. I think he just accepted me because any friend of Richard was a friend of his so it was really sweet. Things like that happened at Richard’s flat!”

    Of Paul McCartney: I remember thinking to myself, ‘He’s a great songwriter but The Beatles aren’t my favourite band. This is somebody I admire but he isn’t one of my heroes’

    McCartney’s fame is, of course, so off-the-scale that many people are reduced to gibbering idiots in his presence. Not so Martin, however. “I remember thinking to myself, ‘He’s a great songwriter but The Beatles aren’t my favourite band. This is somebody I admire but he isn’t one of my heroes.’ So I was pretty cool. If it had been Shirley Horn or Carmen McRae or Ella Fitzgerald or some of my greats I think I would have been a bit tongue-tied.”

    Would Bennett, I wonder, have been an admirer of McCartney’s music? “I never asked him but I think he would have seen the merits of it,” says Martin. “He wasn’t averse to any types of music, really. He had a big, open heart and ears for anything that was good and well-crafted and he really liked Paul. He got on very well with him. It was a nice friendship.”

    There are eight Bennett compositions or co-compositions on I Watch You Sleep and Martin enthuses about his writing: “I think there’s a timelessness about it and these tunes would sit alongside the Great American Songbook. It’s very elegant, intelligent writing. The songs [co-composed] with Johnny Mandel in particular are just beautiful and I like his lyrics with Franklin [Underwood]. They’re cheeky, they’re fun, like Early To Bed.”

    There are also eight non-Bennett compositions on the album. Martin explains how these songs were selected: “Obviously I sang with him over the years so I knew the songs he loved the most because they would keep turning up [in the repertoire]. And I knew from asking him that [Arlen/Mercer’s] I Wonder What Became Of Me was his favourite song, so it was easy to pick that, and that he also loved [Leonard/George’s] Not Exactly Paris. And [Vernon Duke’s] Autumn In New York is Richard for me. I can hear him singing it now. . . He’s in my very soul so it’s easy to remember what he loved.”

    As a duo Martin and Bennett often played upmarket venues like the Algonquin in New York. “The first couple of nights were very nerve-wracking and you’re on your best behaviour in some of these nicer rooms but I prefer to be more relaxed, in a bog-standard place, to be really honest,” she says. “But there’s something about it. It’s glamorous and you’re in a frock and it’s New York. One night Diana Krall came in with Elvis Costello, one night Tony Bennett came in.”

    Martin and Scott Dunn have long known each other. “He’d been taught by Richard and was a dear friend of his and he’s very much rooted in Richard’s style and I think he’s really captured the essence of Richard’s musicality. He’s very classy, very sophisticated and very sympathetic to the lyric. I think he nailed it!”

    The album includes a lovely version of Kurt Weill and Ira Gershwin’s My Ship. When Martin previously recorded the song, on her 2014 Time & Place album, Bennett wrote an arrangement for her, for four cellos. “I remember him writing that four-cello arrangement incredibly quickly,” she says. “I don’t think he even went near a piano. He just sketched it out and it worked beautifully. So Scott had the template there and embellished it for an orchestra. So that was like a treat upon a treat and it reminded me of the time Richard wrote it for me and brought back some lovely memories.”

    Martin delightedly recalls recording several tracks with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra for I Watch You Sleep: “We did it in two very hot days in August and everybody was sitting in shorts and T-shirts and little strappy tops and shoes off and we were all sweating. But that kind of made it relaxed. I did maybe 10 or 12 takes of every track, sometimes more, so it was a long, hard couple of days, a lot of singing. But just seeing the orchestra there in front of me and hearing those amazing musicians and that beautiful sound, I felt so lucky. I was a bit overwhelmed actually! It was a sheer and utter privilege.”

    The album in fact is wonderfully varied. Some tracks feature the orchestra, on others there’s a jazz trio, sometimes there are strings and jazz bass or just piano and bass. And some of the songs are romantic and some are very witty, and so on. “Thank you for noticing that because that’s exactly what we wanted. We wanted a break for the ear of the listener and we wanted a couple of pure jazz things that were improvised in the moment and then we wanted huge, lush orchestrations. I Watch You Sleep, from the film Yanks, had really only been sung by Shirley Horn and we wanted that to be incredibly lush and heart-wrenching. We put a lot of prior work into thinking how it was going to sit and we planned all the moods because 16 songs is a lot and we had to break it up somehow, so it’s different on every track.”

    After 35 years as a professional singer Martin remains impressively dedicated to her art. Indeed she regularly works with a vocal coach. “Every month I have a singing lesson. I have a great singing teacher who does a technique called Estill. It’s about actually knowing the way the voice physically, biologically, works. I go for an MoT and check in my voice with him. I go up and down the scales, I look at things that have been troubling me over that month, what tension I’ve been holding, should I maybe look at different exercises. . . Or I’ve been very busy and want to make sure my voice isn’t damaged. Or I haven’t been very busy and I want to knock it into shape because I’ve got gigs coming up. It’s like being a hairdresser and sharpening your scissors every month! Just making sure that my instrument, which is in my body, is in good nick. I think that’s a very good thing to do and I encourage all singers to do it.”

    ‘I take vocal health really, really seriously. I have to. It’s my living. But I drink red wine. I just can’t give that up!’

    Martin’s commitment to looking after her instrument extends beyond her monthly lessons. “I’ve had to give up all the good stuff like smoking. I keep fit, I do yoga and it’s about keeping quiet on gig days and having a good sound man and knowing that you’re not straining because you can’t hear yourself, it’s having a sensitive band that aren’t going to play all over you. It’s resting, it’s keeping your voice lubricated [with] tons and tons of water, it’s sleeping, it’s not shouting, it’s not having a massive, cheesy pasta before you sing because it might coat your cords. I take vocal health really, really seriously. I have to. It’s my living. But I drink red wine. I just can’t give that up!”

    Martin over the years has won eight British Jazz Awards and various other honours including the Parliamentary Jazz Award for Best Vocalist Of The Year in 2022. “The awards mean a great deal,” she says. “It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been in the game, it’s great to be recognised. Last year I was absolutely convinced [the Best Vocalist Award] was going to be [won by] an up-and-coming singer so for me to still be recognised and still be relevant on the scene is great. You need that to keep your confidence up so I’m grateful. It keeps you going.”

    Martin’s greatest honour – arguably – was her OBE in 2011. “I don’t particularly want to be an Officer of the British Empire. I’m horrified at the stuff the empire did. So I did have to think that through. But I took it because it shone a light on me as a woman in music and in jazz which is still very male-dominated. I thought ‘Well, I’m going to take it for all of us and if I’m smart I can use it to my advantage, to get on radio stations that want to talk about that and then talk about the music.’

    “And I took my mum and dad for a day at the palace and we had a lovely time.”