Making her stateside debut in the Oak Room at the Algonquin, British thrush Claire Martin is a prime illustration of what can happen, good and bad, to a jazz singer in a cabaret-oriented space. Martin demonstrates the power and pitfalls right from the get-go. Unfurling a smoky voice that stays smoky in at least three octaves, Martin opens with Cole Porter's "Get Out of Town" and sounds supple as a clarinet — and about as interested in the meaning of the words as a clarinet would be.
She's establishing credentials, of course, and would probably be an immediate darling to audiences who rate voice as instrument above voice as part of the equipment necessary to tell a lyricist's story. These are the same audiences who know it's standard practice in jazz rooms to applaud at the conclusion of instrumental breaks. Cabaret patrons either aren't hip to the convention, or they don't want to clap over lyrics. When I saw Martin, however, she indicated not too subtly that she wanted pianist Gareth Williams and electric bassist Laurence Cottle acknowledged. The men, especially fast-fingered Williams, deserved the recognition, but there was a definite sense that the subsequent mittage was obligatory, not heartfelt.
Eventually, Martin, who's shapely and has a sense of humor, does get her most salient points across. In a show called Remembering Shirley Horn (there's a jazz instrument moniker for you), she introduces Kirsty Maccoll's "He Never Mentioned Love" by referring to its "wonderful lyrics" and then honors them with well-acted aplomb. She also roller-coasters her voice through a Horn fave — "Here's to Life" (Phyllis Jean Molinary-Artie Butler) — without losing feel for the sentiment. By then she earns her welcome, and her pyrotechnical speed-through on the Alan Jay Lerner-Burton Lane "Come Back to Me" registers nicely as an impressive change of pace.
Presented by and at the Oak Room at the Algonquin,
59 W. 44th St., NYC.
June 26-July 6. Tue.-Thu., 9 p.m.; Fri. and Sat., 9 and 11:30 p.m.