St. David’s Hall, Cardiff, 21 July 2016.
Capital City Jazz Orchestra, with special guest Claire Martin (vocals)
No jazzer would be surprised to learn that early in the afternoon of this concert the band didn’t know the details of what it would be playing until 5pm, when songbird Claire Martin was due to fly in for a first rehearsal. It tells you something remarkable about the exhilarating performance that took place a couple of hours later and about how relaxed but serious jazz musicians are when it comes to professionalism, discipline and tight deadlines. She chose and sang the tunes, they played the charts; it was as easy as that. What resulted from their joint exploration of the so-called Great American Songbook was, as is often the case in jazz, an example of the parts adding up to a whole greater than their sum and with a polish achieved apparently against the odds.
At anything other than a Welsh festival of this kind, the collaboration would have been advertised as Claire Martin with the Capital City Jazz Orchestra, not the other way around. She’s the international singer, they’re the local lads (with just one lass, the baritone sax player Jenny Weir, also doubling a few other instruments in the reed section’s lower depths). But ‘Miss’ or ‘Ms’ Martin, as band MD Ceri Rees referred to her in a jazzman’s act of chivalry when introducing female musicians of stature, wouldn’t have minded being with them rather than they with her on the Proms poster. They’d created an obvious rapport during their ridiculously short time together before the gig began. ‘They’re a fun band,’ she said at one stage. The funster-in-chief was Mr ‘Beefy’ Rees himself, who introduced Dizzy Gillespie’s A Night In Tunisia with the observation that a night in Tunisia was like a night in Tredegar but with less violence. It was straight out of the Ronnie Scott gagbook, via the Welsh valleys, just as the singer’s selections were plucked from the Great American Songbook, also a tome with no physical manifestation. Even in its imaginary form, the title has to be grammatically re-structured: it’s a ‘book’ of great American songs.
They included the Duke Ellington/Don George tune I Ain’t Got Nothing But The Blues, in an arrangement by British trombonist Mark Nightingale. Mr Rees resisted a joke about trombonists involving telephones that never ring, perhaps because he had one in the band called Gareth Roberts capable of fiery solos flaring up from the trombonist’s life of stolid comping. Claire Martin, with alto saxophonist David Miller in support, gave it the belting treatment she displayed all night while never forgoing an opportunity to come at a lyric from every possible direction, manipulating and teasing it in a voice-as-instrument fashion that every band member must have appreciated. They would also have been impressed by the way her interpretations shadowed the arrangements, vocally aware of their twists and turns. Nightingale had also arranged the Harold Arlen/Ted Koehler song I’ve Got The World On A String. Martin obviously thought him and other arrangers under-praised, not least among them Billy May, whose treatment of the Arlen/Johnny Mercer number That Old Black Magic was typical of how an arrangment allowed her to open out against a background of band parts read and put together in acts of simultaneous ignition.
Martin’s comprehensive gifts acknowledged precedent but never reproduced it unadorned. There were nods towards Billie Holiday in That Ole Devil Called Love, by Allan Roberts and Doris Fisher; Ella Fitzgerald in Cole Porter’s Too Darn Hot; and Frank Sinatra as singer and songwriter in Come Fly With Me, in which tenor sax soloist Tommy Harris made one of his up-and-at-’em contributions atop the changes. This was no wallflower night for some of his colleagues either. Trumpeter Gethin Liddington was the main man in A Night In Tredegar – er Tunisia – and he strode to the front in the band’s two short sets on their own, switching from trumpet to flugelhorn for Sam Nestico’s tasteful arrangement of Billy Strayhorn’s Chelsea Bridge (to which lyrics have been added by, among others, British jazz musician John Surman). Miller, this time playing clarinet and recalling Benny Goodman, was on his feet for Gordon Goodwin’s Sing, Sang, Sung, a skit on Louis Prima’s Sing, Sing, Sing, and there were spotlights for other members, notably pianist Jim Barber in a complex but unacknowledged arrangement of Ray Noble’s The Very Thought Of You. In ballads like that one, Martin eschewed the rococo flurries that up-tempo numbers encouraged in her, allowing the lyrics to speak for themselves. But this was a night when vocally she aimed high, and that meant not only rattling the rigging but also making a hastily-packaged combo of singer and band sound as if it had been around for much longer and was still groovin’ high. Capital!
Header photo: Claire Martin