CD review

Callum Au and Claire Martin – “Songs and Stories”

Callum Au and Claire MartinSongs and Stories
(Stunt Records, STULP 20061.
Review by John Arnett)

In a career spanning 30 years and more than 20 albums, this CD marks a very spirited and classy new departure for Claire Martin in that it is her first recording with not just a big band but also with a large orchestra – 82 musicians in all. Her collaborator, and trombonist in the big band, is Callum Au, prolific and in demand composer and arranger whose credits include numerous West End stage shows, seven years with NYJO, a similar stint with the Ronnie Scott Jazz Orchestra and work with artists of the calibre of Quincy Jones and Burt Bacharach to name but two.

Callum Au and Claire Martin Songs and storiesThe album is a contemporary take on a selection of great songs predominantly from musicals of the 1930s, 40s and 50s. The overall sound is powerful and refined, always a sympathetic foil to the voice, and with a striking variety of colour, mood and tempo. On this showing, voice and orchestration really do seem to be made for each other.

Opener Pure Imagination (Bricusse-Newley) is a rather more contemporary choice and a real highlight of the album. It is a magical song to begin with, but the combination of the rich, spacious and harmonically interesting arrangement and Claire Martin’s sinuous, seductive vocal takes it to new heights altogether. Add to this Freddie Gavita’s immaculate, searching trumpet solo towards the end and it’s a tough act to follow. Track two, Let’s get Lost, very sensibly changes the mood completely; a swinging big band romp with staccato horns – about as different as you could get from, say, Chet Baker’s vocal version of the same song, which was how I first heard it. Hoagy Carmichael’s I Get Along Without You Very Well signals a return to the wistful side, with strings and piano underscoring Claire Martin’s beautifully clear and yearning vocal.

Halfway through the album, and its longest track at nearly seven minutes, a spellbinding rendition of Cole Porter’s I Concentrate on You is the centrepiece of the whole project in terms of drama and emotional impact. Callum Au’s driving and dynamic arrangement adds something altogether new and compelling in the form of a recurring melodic theme between verses, building from piano to whole ensemble and back. Nadim Teimoori’s tenor sax solo is an exhilarating and beautifully constructed release that you want to hear again and again. It’s hardly surprising that this level of intensity is not to be found again in the remaining tracks, good as they are. Having said that, Stars Fell on Alabama is a stylish and rousing piece with some inventive and stellar vocal improvisation – appropriately enough. The song was inspired by the Leonid meteor shower in Alabama in 1833, which the local newspaper dubbed “the night the stars fell”.  Who knew?

This is a very rewarding album, and one that continues to grow on you, distinguished by musicianship and singing of a very high order. 

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