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Claire Martin - international jazz singer and winner of Radio 2's Jazz Vocalist of the Year Award. Nick interviews Claire in May 2010 just after the soundcheck at Thornbury Arts Festival where Claire performed with Gareth Williams, Laurence Cottle and Chris Dagley.

 

 

Nick Langston with an exclusive interview with Radio 2’s Jazz Vocalist of the Year.

 

 

The last year has been pretty good for Claire Martin – a critically-acclaimed new album, the winner of jazz vocalist of the year and involvement in BBC Four’s celebrations of the ‘Great American Songbook’. So why is it that jazz seems to be the poor relation of the UK’s music output when so many people still seem to enjoy it – as witnessed by the continuing popularity of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Ella Fitzgerald and more recently Harry Connick Jr, Jamie Cullum and Michael Buble.

 

It’s Saturday 1st May 2010 and I’m sitting with a couple of video cameras in the middle of Armstrong Hall in Thornbury near Bristol .  Claire has just finished her soundcheck for her appearance at Thornbury Arts Festival and is eating some lasagne with the band.

 

I hear her heels first and she walks purposefully towards me with a smile.

 

“Is this going on YouTube?  Do I need some lipstick?”

 

She looks absolutely fine in her jeans and black shirt but I’m wary about entering into comment on cosmetics and luckily for me she decides for herself.  She’s back in a couple of minutes, takes less than a split second to compose herself and she’s ready to go.

 

Her website says that she grew up listening to Ella Fitzgerald’s songbooks – widely regarded as the definitive recorded versions of the great songs by Irving Berlin, Cole Porter and the like – classics such as ‘They can’t take that away from me’, ‘Summertime’ and ‘The Lady is a Tramp’.

 

I ask her why she wasn’t listening to Madonna and Wham and she explains the impact of maternal taste on her formative years – it’s funny how so many of us claim to hate what our parents like but are nevertheless so deeply influenced by it. Claire’s enthusiasm for the music is immediately apparent.

 

“It was the pop music of the day.  Ella produced a staggering amount of brilliant stuff and it was the prime of her singing voice.”

 

The pop music of the day. That’s exactly what it was – pop music – not some kind of inaccessible pretentious nonsense.  It’s what the kids were listening to.

 

Claire refers to this on her website – “jazz isn’t an inaccessible art that’s too difficult to understand” – so I ask her, when did jazz move from being pop music to inaccessible music.

 

“Perhaps in the 60s,” she says, “when there was no song or story to follow.” She refers to the be-bop scene and 30 minute jazz solos. “Some of it’s a hard listen but it’s also wonderful.”  She wonders if jazz reacted to The Beatles which meant that jazz had to find its niche elsewhere.

 

“People think jazz is highbrow now but I think that’s wrong.”  She refers to the influence that jazz has had on the likes of Joni Mitchell, Stevie Wonder and KD Lang but tellingly still refers to jazz as “the romantic underdog”.

 

I ask her what jazz tracks she would recommend to a 16 year old for their MP3 player.

 

“For melodies, beautiful execution and phrasing go for Ella when she’s swinging with Louis Armstrong,” and she enthusiastically lists a range of performers from Sarah Vaughn through to the brilliant contemporary vocals of  Kurt Elling.

 

I go for some quick-fire questions.

 

Ella Fitzgerald or Judy Garland?  “Both.”

 

Frank Sinatra or Michael Buble?  “Frank Sinatra,” she says, looking at me as if I’m stupid.

 

F major or F minor.  “F minor.”

 

Saxophone or trumpet?  “Trumpet.”

 

Madonna or Wham?  “Madonna.”

 

Claire Martin or Clare Teal?  She laughs.  “We both have our place!”

 

And with that Claire goes to prepare for what is to be a masterclass in jazz singing.  With her brilliant trio of Gareth Williams (keyboards), Laurence Cottle (bass) and Chris Dagley (drums) she moves through a range of classic and contemporary jazz tunes, giving every phrase a meaning and pushing the melodies around with complete control. You can hear the influence of the likes of Ella on songs such as Johnny Mercer and Jimmy Van Heusen’s “I thought about you” but Claire has clearly drawn on the wealth of jazz greats to develop her own style and it is easy to see why she is held in such a high regard.

 

So is jazz an ‘inaccessible art form’? As Claire says, ‘it’s not easy’ but then is anything worthwhile easy?  And given the amount of pleasure that jazz continues to give so many people perhaps it is happy to stay out of the brash limelight and remain as the cool, sharp-dressed cousin of other forms of music.