Matthew Wright interviewed Claire Martin and Joe Stilgoe, who are performing at the Crazy Coqs Cabaret Room at Brasserie Zedel this week. He writes:
Sometimes artistic opportunity arises from the saddest circumstances. When the great composer and pianist Sir Richard Rodney Bennett died last December, his long-standing musical partner, Claire Martin, was left not just with huge feelings of grief and loss, but also with bookings to fulfil. She met Joe Stilgoe, who was standing in for Curtis Stigers, while performing with the John Wilson Orchestra, asked him if he’d also like to stand in, and a great match was created.
Claire Martin and Joe Stilgoe begin a five-night residency at Crazy Coqs, the cabaret night at Brasserie Zedel in Piccadilly, on Tuesday. Festival appearances and a recording are already planned for later in the year: the way in both of them talk of future plans give a strong impression that this partnership already has legs.
Their Crazy Coqs programme will be an appetizing compendium of classics from the American songbook, and Stilgoe’s original songs, for which he has received eulogistic reviews. The pair have a similar musical outlook, and their differences – Martin has greater experience interpreting the songbook, Stilgoe with his own material – will be musically complementary.
Stilgoe is understandably impressed with his new duo partner, whom he describes as ‘a true jazz singer, with a massive repertoire’. Having sung more and more over the last few years, he is looking forward to the challenge and discipline of working with a singer. “I have to be more disciplined, accompanying on piano,” he says. “I used to accompany a lot more. I love having someone of her calibre. It raises my game. She has a great way of shaping song, and a great way with the audience,” he explains.
Claire Martin, meanwhile, is relishing the musical variety Stilgoe can offer, though she is used to an accompanist of global standing. She sang with Richard Rodney Bennett for many years, regularly performing live in New York and recording the albums Secret Love and When Lights Are Low together, but despite the capacious shoes Stilgoe has to fill, she is happy to concede that he has the edge in some areas of performance. “Richard would never profess to be a singer – he carried a tune,” she says. “Joe has a stronger voice, whereas Richard was more conversational, like Shirley Horn. Joe is also more of a jazz pianist, he has more dexterity,” says Martin.
There are more similarities than differences between the two, including that Stilgoe shares a love of film music with Bennett (who made his name in the 1950s as a composer for film), and is looking forward to recording his next album, a collection of film music drawn from the last 100 years of music on film. The only challenge is whittling down the list to something manageable in a single evening. So far, he says, he’s managed to create a shortlist of ‘about 3000 songs’. He will perform a selection of his songs on film on 17th November at St. James Theatre, during the London Jazz Festival.
Both enjoy a zesty rapport with the audience. Stilgoe has a lethal wit, as sharp if not as salacious as Ian Shaw’s, but Martin also has designs on this area of performance. “She tells smutty jokes,” he confides, describing their June appearance at the 606 Club.
Stilgoe feels ambivalent about the balance of music and comedy. He was once described by Ian Shaw as “a cross between Oscar Peterson, Bill Evans and Les Dawson”, though he modestly advises his audience to ‘discount the first two’. “Nothing worse than leaving an audience dry,” he suggests. “I love the self-sufficiency of pianists like Dudley Moore, or Victor Borge. You shouldn’t be scared to be enjoyed for something you’ve said,” he comments, noting at the same time that Keith Jarrett, for example, feels less pressure to chat to the audience, and there’s clearly a counterbalancing concern about not being taken seriously. “‘Loved your gig – it was hilarious’ is the best and worst thing anyone has said to me,” he suggests, feeling the implied insult to his musicianship.
With thirteen successful albums, and substantial recognition in America, where she has surpassed all other European artists in popularity and acclaim, Claire Martin could justifiably pause for breath, but instead she has recently begun a new partnership with the Montpellier Cello Quartet. Her choice of repertoire has always been wide-ranging, rooted in jazz technique, but keen to explore beyond its boundaries for material, including songwriters like Phoebe Snow and Joni Mitchell, for example. Her new collaboration with the Montpellier Quartet offers some different sounds and an eclectically star-studded list of arrangers, including Sir Richard Rodney Bennett, Mark-Anthony Turnage (who has adapted a Joni Mitchell song), Django Bates, Laurence Cottle and Simon Woolf.
With the recording of his film song album coming up later in the year, Stilgoe has just released a single, ‘Abracadabra’, to keep his fans tantalised. “I didn’t have a record planned for this year, and this was something I started doing live. It’s nice to keep busy and releasing things. The album is dying, and people pick and choose these days,” he explains.
For both performers, Crazy Coqs offers a new opportunity on an increasingly ruthless musical scene. Martin sees it as a replacement for a much-loved venue that closed in 2010. “I’m thinking of it like Pizza on the Park, opening the door wider for jazz people,” she says. “Pizza on the Park was a massive loss.” For both, the character is reminiscent of New York, both in atmosphere – “it’s a classic cabaret room with New York-model low lamps, cocktails, table seating, a thirties/forties intimacy and enjoyable lyrics,” says Stilgoe – and in what it offers, which is an expansion in capacity for jazz singers, which is closing elsewhere, and for players of their prominence, a week’s residency.
Martin is almost unfeasibly restrained and self-effacing when discussing her American successes, but she does concede that one positive feature of New York jazz singing is simply the number of venues available to sing in: “There are more clubs for people to sing in, more of a scene,” she says, adding that American audiences are ‘less inhibited, more vibey, and more responsive’.
Stilgoe concedes that cabaret in Britain has a mixed reputation: “Cabaret has certain stigmas. It’s partly the diversity of the genre – anything from tiller girls, burlesque, to a classy singer,” he suggests. The nostalgia of the setting is, perhaps, both a weakness and a strength. “The renaissance [of cabaret] is to do with the room, the ambience… There’s always nostalgia, a sense of harking back. It’s so intimate, it has to be. The audience is watching something created just for them. Crazy Coqs has attracted many New York singers, who had nowhere to sing when Pizza on the Park shut.”
Neither Martin, who regularly performed with Sir Richard Rodney Bennett at the Algonquin Hotel in New York, nor Stilgoe, a veteran of jazz festivals from Montreux to Barbados, could be considered in any way a stranger to glamorous surroundings, but this week’s Crazy Coqs residency, undoubtedly a coup for the Piccadilly venue, is an irresistible opportunity for London jazz fans.
Claire Martin and Joe Stilgoe play at Crazy Coqs, Brasserie Zedel, Sherwood Street, Piccadilly, Tues 13th to Saturday 17th. For tickets, phone 020 7734 4888.
After Crazy Coqs, Martin and Stilgoe will perform at the British Vocal Jazz Festival in Edinburgh, (19 & 20 August; Le Monde, 16 George Street); and sing a programme entitled ‘I Love Paris’, (7 December, Wigmore Hall). Joe Stilgoe will feature on Martin’s next album, a collaboration with the Montpellier Cello Quartet.