Jazz singer Claire Martin tries something different

Claire Martin and The Montpellier Cello Quartet
Claire Martin and The Montpellier Cello Quartet

After 27 years on the British jazz scene, Brighton-based singer Claire Martin is still seeking out new experiences.

The acclaimed vocalist, who has won the British Jazz Awards seven times, has embarked on a unique collaboration with The Montpellier Cello Quartet for a new UK tour.

The show comes to The Old Market, Hove, on Tuesday, September 30 (7.30pm).

Claire says that working with the cellists – Siriol Hugh-Jones, Joe Giddey, Dan James and Sarah Davison – has given her the chance to try something totally new and enriching.

“I’m used to a jazz trio setting, mostly, which is piano, bass and drums,” Claire explains. “So it’s incredibly different for me to have no drummer keeping time and to have just the sound of these four cellos in harmony.”

This sonic experience is unusual for Claire, but she says the group have a good relationship with each other.

“It’s a lot of fun,” she says. “They are lovely people and we’re all very different but we all get on as a group. Everybody’s got a nice quirky personality and we fit.”

Claire continues: “It’s fun and it’s a learning curve, you know? I’m learning a bit more about how to pitch better, I think, against the harmony they’re giving me and also to try to play in time. The more we play together the better we get.”

So, how did this extraordinary partnership form? Claire’s answer is surprisingly straightforward.

“My daughter was having cello lessons from Joe Giddey, one of the players, and he just happened to mention one day that he had a gig with this outfit at a church in Brighton. I thought ‘wow, that will be good. Four cellos!’”

“I like the register of a cello,” Claire continues, explaining that she felt her vocals would work well with this music. “I like the warmth. I like the sound it makes and I thought it would be a good marriage.”

The project has produced a new album, Time and Place, which combines Claire’s love for the Great American Songbook with new arrangements of popular classics. Songs like ‘She’s Leaving Home’ by John Lennon and Paul McCartney, sit alongside much older numbers like ‘My Man’s Gone Now’ by George Gershwin. Claire is pleased with the result, but performing songs from outside of a jazz repertoire was tricky.

“You’ve got to try not to let them stick out like sore thumbs,” Claire says. “You need to have a good quality song that will blend in and sit happily alongside Cole Porter or Gershwin or Thelonious Monk.”

When I ask if she has a favourite song on the CD, Claire chooses ‘The Man Who Sold The World’ by David Bowie.

“I thought it would lend itself very well to cello because of that riff it’s got in it,” she says. “The challenges are making it work without being a ‘cover’, like a sort of pop cover of a pop song. So, looking at the arrangement, looking at the harmony, looking at how I can put my own stamp on it and making sure it can blend in with the rest of the repertoire and not just be like a token pop song.”

Claire also mentions the album’s opening number, ‘My Ship’ by Kurt Weill and Ira Gershwin, as a favourite.

She explains: “The arrangement was written by my lovely late friend Sir Richard Rodney Bennett and it’s just so him – the writing and the skill and the beauty of what he’s written. It’s very dear to me.”

Tunes from the Great American Songbook still astound listeners today and I ask what Claire finds so appealing about this canon of music.

“I love the skill of the songwriting,” Claire says. “I love the lyrics. I love the meaning of the words. I love the structure of the songs. I love the melody and harmony of the songs. They really suit me and they don’t have to sound like old fashioned songs.”

So, what does jazz have to offer the modern world? Claire pauses for a moment and chooses her words carefully.

“Jazz, for me, is about exciting improvisation, wonderful melodies, sophisticated harmonies and an intelligent approach to music that’s a deeper thing than pop music.”

She continues: “Jazz has a freedom about it, jazz has an expression about it, you know? It’s completely individual. I think people who may not have even ventured into a jazz club should have a go because it’s often viewed as highbrow and it isn’t.”

People who want to try jazz can come along to Claire’s Old Market gig but the singer, who now lives in Brighton and feels that jazz does not have a big enough presence, has some ambitious plans for Sussex.

“I’m actually curating a jazz festival in Shoreham-by-sea,” she reveals, explaining that this event will run from January 23 to 25, next year at the Ropetackle Arts Centre.

Claire continues: “I’ve managed to get some sponsorship from the Arts Council England and some other really good companies on-board to help me curate it, because I do think that, while were very spoilt for choice with culture and the arts (in Brighton), we are lacking in a jazz festival, which we used to have.”

“Fingers crossed that’s going to be a success,” she adds. “Three nights of music, workshops, talks and exhibitions. I think once we get that up and running, we can, perhaps, try to keep that going every year and jazz will have more of a look in.”

Tickets for Claire Martin and The Montpellier Cello Quartet at The Old Market cost £20. Call the box office on 01273 201800 or click here

For information about The South Coast Jazz Festival click here or call 01273 464440.