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Two old pros show what jazz vocals are meant to be.

Music Reviews: Claire Martin – ‘Time and Place,’ Helen Merrill – ‘Parole e Musica’ [Remastered]

Claire Martin – Time and Place

With 17 albums for Linn Records under her belt, it is little wonder that Claire Martin is so often called “the first lady of British jazz.” Not only has she earned that title by virtue of quantity, quantity means little without quality, and musical quality is what defines Martin’s performance.

claire MartinTake her latest, an 11-tune compilation called Time and Place. Working with a fairly typical small jazz ensemble supplemented by the decidedly atypical Montpellier Cello Quartet, she puts her own stamp on everything from pages from the Great American Songbook like Ira Gershwin/Kurt Weill’s “My Ship,” to brilliant interpretations of modern classics like The Beatles’ (Lennon-McCartney) “She’s Leaving Home.” Martin is as at home with a jazz classic like “’Round Midnight” as she is with a powerful new arrangement of David Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World,” using the cello quartet is an integral part of the performance and not merely a gimmick.

She takes a sprightly jaunt through “Early to Bed,” a tune by longtime collaborator Richard Rodney Bennett (who passed away in 2012) and Frank Underwood. Pianist Joe Stilgoe joins Martin for a sensitive rendition of his tune “Lost for Words.” She handles the George Gershwin blues number “My Man’s Gone Now” with a soft intensity and something of a modernist torch touch punctuated by the Cello Quartet. Martin also adds an emotionally intense reading of Joni Mitchell’s “Two Grey Rooms,” which is arranged here by Mark Anthony Turnage.

Time and Place is Claire Martin at the top of her game.

Helen Merrill – Parole e Musica [Remastered]

Back in the ‘50s, jazz singer Helen Merrill made a name for herself and was ranked with the best vocal talent around. Collaborating with the likes of Clifford Brown and Oscar Pettiford, she had the ability to play her voice the way the musicians played their instruments, and she used it to great effect. Then in 1960, she took off on an European tour, and later went to Italy to record several concerts for a TV show called Moderato Swing. Parole e Musica gathers together 11 songs she recorded for those Italian TV shows.

With ensembles led by pianist Piero Umiliani, she runs through a collection of tunes, each and every one a classic – and each and every one sung with subtlety and style. “Night and Day,” “April in Paris,” “Willow Weep for Me,” “I’ve Got You Under My Skin”—her interpretations make it clear why these songs have become classics. She lives in the nuance.

The album includes introductory spoken Italian translations by Fernando Cajati, which despite the sexy romance his voice exudes, get in the way of the music. There is a purity in Merrill’s voice that is cheapened by the introductions. Better to hear her sing unencumbered by translations.

Her career in Europe and later in Japan blossomed, but she never quite achieved the huge success in the United States that she seemed destined for. Listening to Parole e Musica, listening to what she did with tunes like “When Your Lover Has Gone,” “Autumn in New York,” and “Why Don’t You Do Right,” it is clearly our loss.

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