Feature/Interview (PP)

Claire Martin & Callum Au: Songs and Stories (Cadogan Hall, 20 Jan 2023)

This unique collaboration between Britain’s star jazz vocalist Claire Martin and Callum Au’s 50-piece orchestra and big band was originally set for its Cadogan Hall debut in June 2020. Their Songs and Stories album together on the Danish Stunt record label instantly gained praise in print and on the air. What better way to celebrate its success than to roll out a concert presentation in one of London’s premier auditoria? But like so many prestigious public events, and private ones too, this plan was scuppered by the onset of the Covid epidemic. After one more cancelled attempt in July 2021 – and a 2020 Album of The Year award in the Parliamentary Jazz Awards – the much-anticipated concert is to finally take place at Cadogan Hall on Friday 20 January.  Preview feature by Peter Vacher.

The Claire Martin and Callum Au combination, so effective on record, is sure to be spell-binding in person. Two years in the making, it is sub-titled ‘An orchestral concert of jazz standards and American songbook classics’ for good reason, involving as it does a roster of timeless standards all given added freshness in Au’s distinctive settings.

Composer, arranger, and orchestrator Au is to handle the additional role of conductor this time; it was Mark Nightingale who took the baton for the album, now he’s changing places with Au in the trombone section. The concert will also include added song choices for Martin and new instrumental feature pieces written by Au for special guest tenor-saxophonist Nadim Teimoori (“My favourite tenor saxophonist in the world”, Au says), violinist John Mills (the leader of the John Wilson Orchestra), consummate trumpeter Louis Dowdeswell, with one more for Au himself on, appositely, ‘How Long Has This Been Going On?’ (Full orchestra listing below, correct at time of publication).

Au’s co-partner in this enterprise is the much-garlanded Claire Martin OBE, by any definition Britain’s leading jazz singer. As All About Jazz put it, ‘She is one of the crown jewels of the jazz world,’ and so say all of us. To see her perform in an orchestral or big band setting is a heady delight and one which will be given full rein here.

Martin brings to each performance the measure of her three decades of experience, this encompassing no less than eight British Jazz Awards and the coveted Gold Badge of BASCA (The British Academy of Songwriters, Composers and Authors). Plus, an array of some 23 albums, one of which with guitarist Jim Mullen was also released on the Stunt label. Another association that was much commended by her listeners was that with composer Sir Richard Rodney Bennett, their mutual regard represented on Songs and Stories by Martin’s reading of his song ‘I Never Went Away’, cushioned by Au’s sensitive orchestration. 

Martin played a very active role in selecting the songs on the album, including those by Carmichael, Kern, Porter, Arlen et al, and others added for the concert, working with Au at the piano to narrow down the repertoire to ensure “a nice mix of light and shade and a balance of different moods and feeling,” as he told writer Ron Simpson.

Callum Au was born in 1990 and is of Scottish-Chinese heritage, and spent his formative years in Blackpool. It was his Year Four primary school teacher who handed Au, the tallest boy in the class, the trombone, when she was distributing brass instruments to the youngsters. This lucky chance has, of course, led to a substantial career as an instrumentalist and arranger, much aided by “wonderful teacher” Terry Reaney, formerly a key trumpet soloist with the Syd Lawrence Orchestra who had lately retired from the road. Mr Reaney ran a Monday evening ‘blow’ band opening up his young charges including Au and various semi-pros to the magic of Miles Davis and the great names of jazz. After Oxford University, where he read classics, Au moved to London in 2011 and joined NYJO as a trombonist. He praises Bill Ashton for getting him to start arranging for the band. This way, Au says, he gained, “a huge insight into what works and what doesn’t,” and counts this as a crucial period in his development as an arranger.  

It was through his membership of NYJO that he met multi-instrumentalist Pete Long, a mutually valuable association, with Long, who is the musical director of the Ronnie Scott Jazz Orchestra, also linking with Au in the album and concert ensembles. In turn, Au has held the jazz trombone chair in the Scott orchestra since 2012 and joins Long on his many jazz repertoire recreations. Happy still to take soundtrack sessions as and when and to liaise with trumpeter James Davison in their nifty Jazz-a-Tete quintet, Au nevertheless now sees himself primarily as an arranger, ever-busy, having already built up a formidable reputation in this demanding arena. “I’ve done recent arrangements for artists including Michael Bublé, Jamie Cullum, Metropole Orkesta and Joe Stilgoe,” he says, dropping a few names. He’s looking forward to a week in Germany with the SWR big band in March/April playing his music and that of pianist Daniel Kaeshammer and to tackling compositional commissions for a pair of brass ensembles as well as another for the Tippett String Quartet, led by John Mills.

For now, though, it’s Songs and Stories and this ground-breaking concert that is top of his agenda.  

The Callum Au Orchestra

Karen Jones, Katie Bennington, Nick Moss, Simon Marsh, Jessamy Holder, Martin Williams, Peter Long – woodwinds

Louis Dowdeswell, Tom Walsh, James Davison, Freddie Gavita – trumpets.

Andy Wood, Mark Nightingale, Matt Lewis, Barry Clements – trombones.

Andy Littlemore, Corrine Bailey, Matt Gunner, Philippa Slack – horns.

Owen Slade – tuba. Hugh Webb – harp.

Rob Barron – piano. Tommy Emerton – guitar. Matt Skelton – drums. James Turner – percussion.

John Mills (leader), Jeremy Isaac, Marianne Haynes, Anna Brigham, Ciaran McCabe, Natalia Bonner, Emma Parker, Patrick Savage, Lizzie Ball, Kate Robinson, Everton Nelson, Agata Darashkaite, Magda Loth Hill, Susie Chen – violins.

Lydia Lowndes Northcott, Kate Musker, Anna Cooper, Kay Stephen, Eli Bogdanova – violas.

Bozidar Vukotic, James Barralet, Kirsten Jenson, Chris Terepin – celli.

Laurence Ungless – basses.

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LINK: More info and booking at Cadogan Hall

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