Features/Interviews (PP)

‘I Watch You Sleep – Scott Dunn Celebrates Richard Rodney Bennett with Claire Martin and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra’

 “He was an incredible film composer, incredible jazz song composer and an incredible jazz performer: we were trying to represent all three of the sides to Richard on this album,” says American conductor and pianist Scott Dunn.

A new album features UK singer Claire Martin and Scott Dunn who orchestrated the album and leads the RPO. Marking the 10th anniversary of Bennett’s death, it features songs which were among Bennett’s favourites to play and sing. The release date, 25 March, would have been his 87th birthday. Feature by Alison Bentley

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Bennett worked with many well-known singers, including Cleo Laine, Annie Ross, Eartha Kitt, Chris Connor, Marion Montgomery and Mary Cleere Haran. Claire Martin was, for 12 years, the last of his duo partners “Now I look back I realise how lucky I was,” says Martin, ”because he was such a giant of music. I knew him from my early 20s and every gig we did I learned something from him. He would give me insight into a song or singer or he would have an anecdote about the writer – you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone. And above all things he was hilarious!”

Bennett’s I Watch You Sleep opens the album; its lyricist Joel Siegel was also a friend of his, Martin’s and Scott Dunn’s. “I was very grateful for Scott’s decision to make an arrangement inspired by Shirley Horn’s version and she is famously not restricted by time,” says Martin.  Dunn adds, “ I decided we would do the orchestration with just strings and no rhythm at all, because I wanted everything to float through. I once asked Shirley Horn about her incredibly expansive spacing in the timing in the lyrics. She said, ‘Well, frankly, sometimes I can’t remember what the next words are, so I vamp till I get there!’ I’m just so proud of it ’cause I think it really works and it was a real stretch for Claire.”

Dunn’s connection with composer/songwriter Vernon Duke (aka Vladimir Dukelsky goes back to the early 90s. “Richard gave me the two-piano score for the Duke Piano Concerto which had been written in ‘25 for Arthur Rubinstein and was never performed, because Duke never did the orchestration – most likely because, about the same time, Diaghilev the ballet impresario had hired Duke to write for him. Duke’s widow, whom I’d previously met in LA, approached Richard about orchestration but they couldn’t come to terms on a fee. With Richard’s help I orchestrated it and premiered it at Carnegie Hall.  Richard just adored Duke – he was one of his favourite composers and he made several recordings of some of the big Duke numbers, like Autumn in New York. We decided this should be one of the really big numbers and I took Richard’s recording of the song as inspiration for harmonies and approach.” Martin describes Dunn’s lush orchestration as “a dream…a cloud.”

It Was Only a Paper Moon is, unusually, a ballad. Martin tells how Bennett enjoyed hearing other singers in New York. “Andy Bey was singing it slowly, and  Richard thought it was a genius idea.” Dunn adds, “Richard would take these very upbeat songs from the 20s and slow them way down – it really worked for him and for us in this arrangement as well.”

Bennett had a great love of Harold Arlen and recorded a whole album of his songs, including For Ev’ry Man There’s a Woman and It Was Written in the Stars. Dunn explains: “Richard loved them so much that he made a piano violin/duo for me and wove the two together – that’s what gave me the idea for this orchestral arrangement.” Bennett also recorded a vocal/piano version of It Was Written in the Stars, which Martin and Dunn perform as a pared-down duo at the end of the album, along with Arlen’s I Wonder What Became of Me

Dunn: “I was trying my best to channel Richard’s very distinctive way of playing, which is so beautiful, so refined – I don’t quite know how to describe it. The harmonic sense is so sophisticated – I’ll sit at the piano and wonder what the hell chord is that? Perhaps somewhere between Debussy and Bill Evans.” “It is unique, and that’s what made it special, “ Martin muses. “I think it’s because of his background in classical music and his love of jazz- they kind of met in the middle. I remember asking Richard which song he loved the most, and he said, I Wonder What Became of Me.”

Another Duke song is Round About, Duke’s favourite of his own songs. “Richard was always crazy for the song,” says Dunn. “I did have some lead sheets, and interestingly enough, there are two different verses. Claire and I decided to use just the lyrics for the second verse. In the arrangement, Ryan Quigley plays the first verse on Flugelhorn very beautifully, so we get all the music in there.”

At the centre of the album are 3 tracks with just Martin and Rob Barron, piano; Jeremy Brown, bass and Matt Skelton, drums, arranged by Martin and Barron with Dunn. (Written by Bennett with Johnny Mandel and Frank Underwood.) “I’ll Always Leave the Door Little Open, as sung by Claire, is brilliant,” Dunn enthuses. ”It’s had some really big 60s luscious treatments, and we thought, let’s do something more pared down.” Martin adds: “It was my idea with Rob. That intro is actually quite hard to sing at first. I remember very clearly Richard playing me the Lena Horne version and thinking, there’s no way I’m singing that – it really was an oldies’ song! Now I’m older, it fits perfectly, so we just gave it a little jazz twist.”

 I Wish I’d Met You (also by Bennett/Mandel/Underwood) is influenced by Bennett’s friend vocalist Chris Connor. Martin explains: “We just made it into that kind of floating sound- no drums, and a bass feature for Jeremy Brown because he’s such a lovely lyrical player.” Don’t Play Games with Love has never been recorded before. “Every now and then, Richard would do a good sassy song – I’ll keep doing that with my trio.” Dunn adds: “One of our goals was to try and get some of these songs that Richard wrote with Franklin Underwood back in the day. Franklin is such a talent, and he’s still with us, still hilarious.” 

Dunn had previously orchestrated four Bennett songs to perform in 2016 at London’s Barbican with the BBC Concert Orchestra. Goodbye for Now has a witty lyric where the vocalist is singing their own epitaph. “The lyricist Charles Hart was very thrilled about this,” says Martin. “It’s really nice to include him as he’s quite a major part of Richard’s life.” This recording, for full orchestra featuring English horn, is less ironic than Bennett’s own. “Richard was quite averse to outward display of emotion,” Dunn explains. Early to Bed was written for Bennett’s friend Blossom Dearie, who refused to sing it because she objected to the lyric “ain’t got the energy, ain’t got the bread.” Bennett wrote I Never Went Away when he moved to New York. “He wrote that for his partner when they split up,” says Martin. “He wasn’t happy in England. When he was getting his green card, his sponsors were Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim!” Bennett wrote the urbane Let’s Go and Live in the Country for Marian Montgomery and regularly performed it with her. “It is such a laugh – it just gives the recording a little lift,” says Martin. 

Scott Dunn, Claire Martin OBE (photo: Nadja von Massow / nad.works)

Bennett sings Leonard & George’s Not Exactly Paris  on one of the albums he made with Martin, and this is her “first go at it.” “We trimmed some of the lyrics,” Dunn adds. Martin was thrilled that Bennett wrote an arrangement of Weill’s My Ship for her album with cellos. “He rolled his eyes when I said I’m going on the road with four cellos,” she laughs. “He did it very quickly in a couple of hours, nowhere near a piano, over breakfast!” Dunn confirms: “It certainly made my work easier because I had this beautiful quartet version I just had to arrange for string orchestra. I really didn’t change it much at all. Back in the 90s when I first knew Richard I was playing a lot with a Kurt Weill specialist – his German music. A lot of it was revelatory to Richard, so I always feel responsible that I showed him something after he showed me a million things!”

“He was an incredible film composer, incredible jazz song composer and an incredible jazz performer: we were trying to represent all three of the sides to Richard on this album.” 

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LINKS: Claire Martin’s website | Scott Dunn’s website

I Watch You Sleep at Stunt Records

LJN coverage of Richard Rodney Bennett

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