Ian Shaw and Claire Martin at the Norfolk and Norwich Festival 2009

Bruce Lindsay By

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Ian Shaw and Claire Martin
Norfolk and Norwich Festival
Norwich Playhouse

Norwich UK

May 14, 2009

The 2009 Norfolk and Norwich Festival's program of jazz concerts has brought some of the best contemporary jazz musicians to Norwich. On May 14 it was the singers who had a chance to shine. Individually, Ian Shaw and Claire Martin are two of the finest jazz vocalists working today; as a duo they could well be as entertaining as any jazz performers around.

Shaw and Martin are both extremely talented singers: Martin's microphone technique is exceptional, while Shaw is a skilled pianist as well as a savvy vocalist. The duo performed with only Shaw's piano for accompaniment, and at no time during their set did it seem that any more instruments were needed. In fact, their a capella rendition of "I'll Never Fall In Love Again" suggested that they could have dispensed with the piano and carried the entire performance just on the quality of their singing.

Between songs Shaw and Martin are a great comedy double act, telling stories and jokes and discussing the finer points of dieting and discount shopping. But once the music starts they have the ability to move an audience to tears—not just of laughter but of sadness through a judiciously chosen collection of songs with inspired arrangements. The most surprising occurred during Joni Mitchell's "Big Yellow Taxi," when Shaw, after crying out "guitar solo," treated the audience to eight bars of silence as a guitarist conspicuously failed to appear.

One of the greatest joys of the evening was the selection of songs. The classic jazz songbook was in evidence, with songs such as "Makin' Whoopee" and "Darn That Dream," but most of the set featured compositions from rock, pop and soul songwriters such as Phoebe Snow, Donald Fagen and Lou Reed. Reed's "Walk On The Wild Side" saw the audience enthusiastically joining in on the "Doo doo doo" chorus as instructed by the singers—not typical jazz audience behavior in Britain.

The most memorable songs were the love songs, and here again Shaw and Martin have exceptional taste in choosing beautiful and affecting songs that are not part of the jazz canon. Two of the night's songs in particular bore this out. The first was Gilbert O'Sullivan's "Alone Again (Naturally)": a major pop hit in the early 1970s which, though performed by Woody Herman's big band, in Britain is remembered more for O'Sullivan's trademark 1930s grocery delivery boy style of dress than for its quality as a song. Shaw's arrangement and performance brought home the sadness of the lyrics, with their tale of a suicidal jilted bridegroom, while at the same time making it sound as if it was always meant to be a jazz ballad.

The second song, Tom Waits' "Take It With Me," was introduced by Shaw as the best love song ever written. By the time the last notes echoed around the theater, it was hard to argue with his extravagant claim: this was a masterful performance, faithful to the original song and also reflecting the singers' own take on lyrics and melody. Claire Martin took the lead vocal on Sweets Edison-Jon Hendricks' "Centerpiece" as the evening drew to a close: two great voices, one piano for company, and a distinctive and lovely set of songs had come together in an exceptional night's entertainment.

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