Claire Martin: Improvisation, Inspiration, Imagination


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I'm always striving to be a more interesting musician; to sing in tune with feeling and honesty.
Claire MartinSince Claire Martin's debut, The Waiting Game (Linn Records, 1992), she has been an instant success. She is hailed by many as the best British singer of the decade, with numerous prestigious awards and over ten albums to her credit. Martin started singing as a teenager and found her calling as a jazz singer early on. Having been influenced by such artists as Shirley Horn, Sheila Jordan, Peggy Lee and Ella Fitzgerald, she has successfully created her own unique sound that has the same iconic quality as her predecessors. Claire Martin has already left a clearly indelible mark on the genre. She undoubtedly will remain to do so, as her career continues to flourish.

Katrina-Kasey Wheeler caught up with the songstress to discuss her newest project, He Never Mentioned Love (Linn Records, 2007), and her road to success.

All About Jazz: Your influences growing up were Judy Garland and Ella Fitzgerald. You have said that hearing Ella's songbooks changed your life. How so? Did you want to be the next Ella Fitzgerald or did you just know that singing was going to be the way your spent your life? Was this a calling early on?

Claire Martin: I think hearing Ella sing the Great American Songbooks is essential listening for anyone who wants to get into jazz singing. She was a very prolific artist and my Mother was and still is one of her biggest fans, so I often heard Ella being played in our house. I didn't ever want to be the next Ella—in fact at that stage of my life I had no idea that I would even end up singing professionally. I think I got a taste for great songs sung by one of the greatest ever artists. Ella swings hard.

AAJ: Was Ella Fitzgerald the artist who inspired you the most? Were there any others?

CM: Sarah Vaughan was a major influence as was Chris Conner, and later Betty Carter, Shirley Horn and Anita O'Day. Out of all of these singers Shirley Horn was my biggest influence.

AAJ: Are you from a musical family?

CM: My parents aren't musicians but they are big music lovers and still go to at least one gig a week. They have been very supportive of my work and I have to say they do have really good taste in music. However, I did see a Rod Stewart CD at their house the other day!

AAJ: Were you interested in other genres of music or was jazz always the genre that spoke to you and inspired your imagination?

CM: I like all sorts of music. My CD collection is very mixed. I love Radiohead, [David] Bowie, Kate Bush, K.D Lang, and Joni Mitchell; I could go on for ages. I love great songs whatever the genre, but I love the freedom jazz gives musicians to improvise. Improvisation is the major key to inspiring my imagination. Betty Carter would sing differently every night. That's very appealing to me.

AAJ: All great singers/musicians have had to pay their dues, so to speak—what is the best thing that you learned about this industry as a singer when you sang at the theatre bar for two years?

CM: I learned that you have to know your keys, your arrangements, what suits your voice, how to play to a room, how to engage an audience in between songs, how to lead a band, count in a tune. In essence, I learned the beginnings of a craft that I am still working on. I don't ever think that you get to the stage where you are totally satisfied with your performance. Maybe you do when you're seventy?

Claire AAJ: Do you think that going through uncertainties early on in one's career, in terms of paying dues, is necessary in order to understand who one is as an artist? As well as knowing what one wants to achieve as an artist; to know if you really have the drive and the vision to make it a career?

CM: Hard gigs definitely can make or break an artist early on, but if you are passionate about pursuing music as a career then you have to do the gigs early on that are just hard work. You don't "go in at the top of any career, so yes, I guess you do get a good level of your determination and also whether you are good enough to carry on.

AAJ: How did you go about forming your first quartet and how did that lead to being signed to Linn Records?

CM: When I left the cruise ships, I had to get a band together in order to do gigs in London, where I am from and where I was living. I went to a few gigs and heard a lot of musicians that were fantastic; Jim Mullen for instance is a world class guitarist and I was really thrilled that he would even consider working with me then as I was very young and not that experienced.

I just rang them up and got together a set and started hustling. There were more gigs in town then, or at least it seemed like that. Maybe there were just less singers. Linn Records came to see me at the Pizza on the Park in London, a famous venue which unfortunately is about to close. They gave me a record deal when I was twenty-three and I recorded the first CD for them the following year. They have been totally supportive of me over the last twelve years.

AAJ: What was it like to achieve one of your goals: that of opening for Tony Bennett at the Glasgow International Jazz Festival?

CM: Three weeks ago he just came to my opening night at the Algonquin in New York. I was really happy to see him again. He was with his new wife. What an absolute star he is. He said some great things to me that were so supportive and kind; very morale boosting. He is a major talent. Still singing great at eighty years old.

AAJ: You have received numerous awards and have worked with legendary musicians and by doing so have obtained much critical acclaim. Is all of this a validation of your career? Does it incite an inner drive pushing you forward on your path of success?

CM: It's very nice to receive awards. It's great for PR and it makes you realize that your work is getting "out there, and people are enjoying it. I don't think it can actually incite an inner drive, but it certainly can help to encourage you along the way. Drive is something I think you are either born with or not. I don't think you can learn to be driven.

AAJ: Has your artistic vision changed at all since you first started your career?

CM: Not really. I'm always striving to be a more interesting musician; to sing in tune with feeling and honesty. Of course I'd like to sing at more festivals in places like St. Lucia, but that's really a glamorous vision of setting rather than artistic vision.

AAJ: Why, at this point, did you choose to record this tribute to your mentor, Shirley Horn?

CM: Well, she had passed away in 2005 and it was time for my next CD and so it seemed perfectly fitting to do it as my next project. I'm surprised that there haven't been more tribute albums to her.

AAJ: How did Horn's technique, spirit and approach influence you?

CM: Shirley Horn can sing a lyric and absolutely reduce me to tears. She touched me immensely. Her piano playing was so classy, stylish, sophisticated, and hip. Her phrasing was just perfect. Her attention to the lyric was just so well measured and her delivery sublime. For me she was the complete jazz artist.

AAJ: Many critics are saying that this current album is your best work yet. Do you feel this way, too?

CM: It's true that I am getting some very nice praise in the press. I think most artists always like the last piece of work that they have done as it seems the freshest. I'm very proud of the work and loved working with my band on the arrangements.

AAJ: What was it like to work with [bassist] Laurence Cottle?

CM: Laurence Cottle is one of the most exciting musicians I have ever had the pleasure of knowing. He is totally supportive, full of great and original ideas and most of all is an incredible bassist. I hope we can do more CDs together in the future. He is a much loved and respected musician in the UK and around the world.

AAJ: You are thought to be, by many including your peers, the best British jazz singer that has emerged in the past decade. It must be a joy to hear something like this?

CM: It's very flattering. There is room for everybody however!

AAJ: You truly pour your heart and soul into your work. Do you feel that you are a storyteller in this way; to convey the emotional undertones of your songs?

CM: I'm getting better at story telling with age. I have more life experience to pour into a song. Listen to Abbey Lincoln now, how much life and love and living she has in her sound. Perhaps you just get more believable with age.

AAJ: Life experience is so crucial for a vocalist's interpretation to be believable. You are great friends with [pianist/composer] Sir Richard Rodney Bennett. What is it like to work with him on When Lights are Low (Linn Records, 2005), especially considering the camaraderie that exists?

Claire CM: It was great! He really brings out the best in me. He plays with such emotion and is very encouraging with difficult key changes or arrangements. I am very proud to know him, even more so to work with him.

AAJ: Is there any producer or musician that you would like to work with and have not yet had the opportunity to do so?

CM: I'd like to sing with [guitarist] Pat Metheny and [drummer] Brian Blade. Also, I would love to sing with [vocalist] Kurt Elling.

AAJ: Those would all be amazing collaborations. Is the jazz scene in the U.K. all that different from that of the United States, and if so, how is it distinctive?

CM: Europe is producing some fantastic young players and some real stars of the future are emerging from the schools and colleges in the UK. Gwilym Simcock who is a pianist and composer here in the UK is a case in point.

AAJ: You are a Yoga enthusiast, does that practice help you to focus on your music and to channel your artistic creativity?

CM: Well, I use it for everything, but mainly to calm me down and keep me centered. It helps me with my work undoubtedly, but that's not the main reason I practice yoga. I don't think I would have achieved as much as I have without my practice.


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