Callum Au and Claire Martin ‘Songs and Stories’ LP/CD (Stunt) 5/5

I have recently been listening to the majestic album by Shirley Horn ‘Here’s to Life’ from 2005. This features strings and a wonderful collection of standard tunes, well known to jazz lovers. String arrangements on that album were supplied by Johnny Mandel. To my mind, that album has become a contemporary classic and that’s how I feel about this latest release from Claire Martin. This is her third album release in the last twelve months or so, and each one has its own distinct style and personality. This one is no different in that respect, but it is Claire’s first recording with a big band and orchestra. The musical arrangements here are supplied by the trombonist Callum Au. I first became aware of Au with the release of his big band album ‘Something’s Coming’. He’s worked with Quincy Jones, Jamie Cullum and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra amongst others. Perhaps because he is so busy working with others, this is only the second release under his own name. You might think that to compare Au with Mandel is unreasonable. If so, just sit back and let the music envelope you.

Claire Martin will be a familiar name to most readers. Her debut release ‘The Waiting Game’ was released in 1992 and since then she has proved to be a prolific recording artist, releasing more than 20 albums. She has recorded in varied settings including small and medium-sized groups and three outings with pianist, composer and sometime vocalist Richard Rodney Bennett. Not to mention one with the Montpellier Cello Quartet. This is, however, her first with a big band and orchestra.

Upon first listening, I was immediately put in mind of those classic Sinatra albums Where Are You?, with Gordon Jenkins and his Orchestra; ‘The Night We Called It A Day’ even features on both albums, and Frank Sinatra Sings For Only The Lonely with arrangements by Nelson Riddle. It’s not overstating things to say that this album ranks along with the Sinatra and Shirley Horn albums that I’ve referenced.

The album opens with ‘Pure Imagination’, a song from the 1971 film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. This is perfection. Perhaps a little brave to open with a ballad, especially at this particularly slow pace, but it works like a dream. The tempo increases for ‘Let’s Get Lost’ with a classic big band accompaniment to a song which I associate with trumpeter and vocalist Chet Baker. How different this version is? The song has proved popular with a wide cross-section of vocalists since its introduction in the 1943 film, Happy Go Lucky and what about the trombone feature?

The strings introduce a leisurely interpretation of ‘I Get Along Without You Very Well’ which surely could not be bettered. A similar tempo is adopted on ‘The Folk Who Live On The Hill’, introduced by piano, before Martin enters, followed by the strings. The big band return for a swinging interpretation of ‘Hello Young Lovers’, a show tune from the 1951 musical The King and I. The arrangement showcases some wonderful work by the saxophone section.

The album produces musical gems across all eleven tracks. Most will be familiar to lovers of quality songs, but it was good to see the inclusion of two lesser-known songs; ‘I Never Went Away’ a song written by Claire’s former musical partner, the late Richard Rodney Bennett. This song has been performed previously by Cleo Laine and Patricia Barber, as well as the composer himself, so Claire has large shoes to fill here. She acquits herself perfectly. The other song which was new to me was ‘Don’t Like Goodbyes’. This is clearly a lack of knowledge on my part, as over the years it has been recorded by Pearl Bailey, Barbara Streisand and Frank Sinatra. Some of the lyrics here are by Truman Capote with additional lyrics and music by Harold Arlen. This would make a fabulous finale to the album with strings and big band in total accord. But Claire has one last musical delight in store, taking us on a journey to Cuba with an absolutely unsurpassed interpretation of ‘You and The Night and The Music’. The big band brass section is to the fore on this tour-de-force.

I have concentrated on the vocal interpretation of these songs, but the album cover makes it clear that Callum Au is an equal partner in this enterprise. His musical arrangements provide the finest settings for the vocals and the big band and orchestra are of the highest order. Throw into the mix some fabulous solo contributions from Freddie Gavita and Ryan Quigley on trumpets, Andy Martin on trombone, Nadim Teimoori on tenor saxophone and with the whole under the expert directorship of Mark Nightingale and we have all of the hallmarks for success. This album is a strong contender for my personal album of the year.

Alan Musson