…I’м very pleased that we are planning more work in the future.
It has been ten years since pianist, composer, song writer and singer Richard Rodney Bennett passed away, and what better way to remember him than with a dedication of two of his closest friends.
Arranger, conductor and pianist Scott Dunn was a frequent collaborator and would often perform two-piano recitals with RBB while vocalist Claire Martin was a musical partner for many years working with RBB as a duo singing Richard’s compositions or favourite standards.
In remembering Richard Rodney Bennett, Scott and Claire have just released the exceptional album ‘I Watch You Sleep’. Recorded with a jazz trio and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, the album is masterpiece with impeccable Scott’s arrangements and Claire’s wonderful voice working its magic.
Not to be phased at all, Claire is able to work with the orchestra sounding completely at ease and in her element with the lush setting with which she has been presented with.
It was therefore a great opportunity and indeed an honour to be able to talk to Scott and Claire about Richard and their tribute to him.
Your new album, I Watch You Sleep is a wonderful dedication to Richard Rodney Bennett. You both met Richard at separate times becoming good friends as well as working together. Can you tell us how you met Richard?
Claire: I met Richard in the early 90’s at a bar in Glasgow. He was there to take a look at the concert hall space for a future date and I was with my trio in the adjacent small bar.
We started talking and became instant friends. He recalled that I was wearing a tiny mini skirt, but that was not true, he just added that in for comedy effect! We had a vodka and effortlessly sealed the deal that night. He became my mentor and championed me until the very end.
Scott: I was introduced to Richard Rodney Bennett shortly after moving to NYC in the early 90’s at the house of composer Irwin Bazelon. Richard and I immediately hit it off and we were immediate, close friends for life. That such a hugely talented man chose to be friends with me, was so gratifying and a bit humbling frankly.
He was always so supportive of me, which was such an amazing gift from such a phenomenally talented man. He taught me so many things: how to cook; how to orchestrate; how to play for singers; the importance of the American songbook and generally how to make my way as a professional musician. I miss him terribly.
And how did the two of you meet, and was your introduction to each through Richard?
Claire: I met Scott when he came around to Richard’s apartment in NY late 90’s I guess as Richard and I were doing some work together at the Algonquin Hotel. We did a private ‘mini gig’ for him of the songs we were working on.
We have kept in touch as much as possible, moreso over the last couple of years as we hatched the plan for this recording. I have enormous respect for Scott and I’m very pleased that we are planning more work in the future. He is totally immersed in the music I love and really knows my voice inside out.
Scott: Our first meeting was exactly as Claire recalls. She and Richard gave me a little private “concert-ette”( as Richard would say) in his upstairs studio.
Over the years Claire and I have grown closer and closer, especially since the death of our dear friend, and working with Claire is an absolute joy. She is a phenomenal artist as well as person….and like our dear late friend, she is hilarious.
Whose idea was it to record this album in Richard’s memory, and perform with jazz trio and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra?
Claire: It was both of our ideas to make this album – we had always wanted to do something like this to remember our dear friend and the 10-year anniversary of his passing seemed appropriate.
We both miss him terribly. During lockdown Scott had time to really work on the arrangements and we could plough through ideas of songs and material at quite a relaxed pace.
Our friend and producer of the album Gill Graham was able to connect us with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and obviously for me that was a dream come true.
Scott: It was exactly as Claire states. Previously I’d played and conducted memorial concerts in NYC and London for RRB, but Claire and I wanted to honor his love of jazz and the great legacy of performances and songs he left us.
The album has a mixture of material composed by Richard along with some of his favourite some of Richard’s favourite songs. How did you choose the repertoire to arrange and record for I Watch You Sleep?
Claire: We already had 4 arrangements that were written by Scott for a previous concert that we had performed with the BBC Concert Orchestra and so we did have a good starting point.
We then went through Richard’s catalogue of songs, some I knew I wanted to sing because I knew they were Richard’s favourite songs, and others were brand new to me. It was a lovely thing to do putting the songs together as I reminisced a lot about us singing together at the Pizza on the Park, a much-missed venue that he and I both loved.
Scott: We had a great start for the album with the four Bennett songs I’d orchestrated in 2016 for a BBC Concert Orchestra concert and broadcast. From his beloved Vernon Duke, Harold Arlen, Johnny Mandel and others we picked the songs he most deeply loved to play and sing.
Additionally, we wanted to highlight his work with lyricist Frank Underwood as well as Bennett’s own great talent as a lyricist and song composer for cabaret and film.
Richard’s love theme from the film YANKS, I WATCH YOU SLEEP (with lyrics by Joel Siegel), is an incredibly beautiful and poignant song which is not at all well known. It should be a standard. We’re trying to remedy that.
Claire, you have performed extensively as a duo with Richard and also recorded three albums together. How did these duo performances originate, and how do you find singing some of Richard’s songs with others?
Claire: When Richard’s musical partnership with Mary Cleere Haran came to an end, he played solo for a while and then I sort of crept in! I had of course been ‘sitting in’ with him over the years and so it seemed like the next natural step for us. We had a LOT of fun working together.
Richard was very witty and being on the road with him was a blast. We toured the UK extensively plus we played in Italy and New York. My husband Phil was our tour manager and so it was a real family affair on the road.
Scott, you also have performed with Richard on many occasions in a two-piano duo. These performances must have been quite special. How did these duo performances begin, and how did you decide on what to play and arrange for these concerts?
Scott: Richard loved playing two-piano duo and had had many distinguished prior partners. I was the last of them. I seem to recall that our very first performance was a Carnegie Hall memorial concert for composer Irwin Bazelon, who had previously introduced RRB and me.
We played a typically thorny Bazelon piece written for Richard which we eventually recorded. While Richard was alive, he generally was in charge of repertoire and arrangements.
I would find us the gigs. He loved exploring obscure corners of the repertoire and had huge piles of old four hand music in his closet. Concerts with him were always special, but most special were the afternoons spent in his studio, sight-reading through music and inevitably breaking down into fits of laughter.
And for yourself Claire, you have worked with the trio of Rob Barron, Jeremy Brown and Matt Skelton on your previous album with Callum Au, Songs And Stories. Was it of benefit to be working with the same trio again, albeit in a slightly different setting?
Claire: Yes! For my money, Rob Barron is the best and most perfect choice for this material. His reading is impeccable and his musicality and pianistic ability world class.
Jeremey is in high demand and rightly so. His accuracy and swing feel plus his beautifully crafted soloing was everything we could have wished for. Richard adored Matt Skelton as a friend and musician. It made absolute sense to have him on this recording.
The album with Callum was the first time you had recorded with a big band and orchestra, and now with I Watch You Sleep you again are working with a full orchestra.
It sounds to me as if you are as at home with a large orchestra as you are with a jazz ensemble. How do you find working with the wonderful arrangements from Scott, and do you have to change your approach at all?
Claire: This was the first time I have ever sung live with an orchestra. With Callum’s project I recorded the vocals after the fact in another studio, so this really was my first ‘with the orchestra’ experience. Even though we worked hard over the 2 days and did many takes of some songs, it was still joyful and never like hard work.
I had practised hard with my vocal coach Stefan Holmstrom on technique leading up to this recording and was in the right mindset for recording 16 songs in just 2 days.
Approach wise, I had rehearsed for weeks with Rob Barron at his house, so I had a good idea on how I was going to interpret the lyric, where to breathe and what tempo sat right. I was well prepared!!
Arranging for jazz trio and orchestra is not always the easiest task. How do you approach the arrangements and leave space for improvisation?
Scott: Interesting question. In approaching the arrangements of trio with orchestra, I would absolutely write out entire jazz bass and drum kit parts. In the trio solo sections I would give Rob the pianist both the chord symbols and suggested written out part.
That said, Rob is such a fine artist, that I told him to play whatever he wanted, and it was lovely hearing his solos evolve from take to take. In the instances where Rob was functioning as ‘orchestral’ pianist, he played the ink I gave him. Always beautiful and tasteful.
Bassist Jeremy Brown must have felt that he was in heaven as you wrote some beautiful arrangements for double bass throughout the album, and especially on ‘My Ship’. You seem to have an affinity for writing for jazz bass and using this as a bridge between the trio and orchestra.
Is this a conscious decision to write such strong parts for the bass or is something that develops organically out of the writing process?
Scott: Thank you for that. I just love double bass and always have. It’s effect in orchestral texture is magical for me. Jeremy is a great artist with impeccable taste. I’m so grateful for his beautiful playing.
Just to out you both on the spot, do you have a particular favourite song on the album Perhaps one of Richard’s or a specific arrangement?
Claire: Without a doubt it is the title track ‘I Watch You Sleep’. Challenging for me, but Scott helped me no end, and also because the lyrics are by our other dear departed friend Joel Seigel.
It has everything a singer could wish for; great lyrics, melody and luscious strings. Shirley Horn also recorded this song and I’m a huge fan. I had her voice and also Richard’s in my head as I sang this. I was also GLUED to Scott conducting, so a memorable track in every respect.
Scott: I have to agree again with Claire, that I WATCH YOU SLEEP is probably my favorite arrangement and that’s why I wanted it for title track, but it’s a bit like picking a favorite child – I’m really quite proud of all of them all and grateful to Claire and Rob for all of their brilliant contributions.
The last two songs on the album feature beautiful duet performances with Scott accompanying you on piano on ‘I Wonder What Became Of Me’ and ‘It Was Written In The Stars’.
What prompted these two lovely songs to be recorded as a duo, and is this something that the two of you may collaborate on further?
Claire: I was over the moon that Scott played on these songs as he is a brilliant pianist. Richard once said that ‘I Wonder What Became of Me’ was his favourite song. It really suits just voice and piano – Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer at their very best.
I had only heard Ella Fitzgerald sing ‘It was Written in the Stars’ and I had never sung it. Again, such a brilliantly crafted song, and I loved how it turned out. We have a lot of irons in the fire for the future and I’d work with Scott in any capacity! It would be a total honour.
Click here to read our review of I Watch You Sleep.