Claire Martin/ Nikki Iles, Wiltshire Music Centre, Friday 16th October

A tingle of excitement and more than a frisson of pleasure greeted the opening phrases of Claire Martin and Nikki Iles‘ duo set on Friday at Wiltshire Music Centre. It was a ‘first gig since March’ evening for both the musicians and the venue and there was even a a large red rug on the stage to welcome them. Despite the generously spaced audience, there was an intimacy and warmth to the set.

The repertoire was inspired by the collaboration between Bill Evans and Tony Bennett which meant a big helping of the great American Song Book and harmonically rich accompaniment with some artful twists in the arrangements. Both these musicians have decades of immersion in the nuances and emotional depths of this music and there was an immediacy and tension at even the most languid tempos.

Claire Martin’s phrasing and delivery flowed, tugged and pulled making every lyric tell a story. Paul Simon’s I do it for you love and the classic My Foolish Heart were two standout moments. Nikki Iles manages the trick of making the the listener forget there’s not a full band, without filling all the space. Tempo, time, feel? In the opener Lucky To Be Me it was all distilled into a little fill in the right hand, a just-so root note in the left hand, before some moving chords nudged the melody around, and Martin’s vocal phrase pushed it on. The swing was viscerally felt, a few hairs stood up on my neck. It might as well be Spring wore it’s a elegant sophistication lightly, a liquid bossa-like groove carrying it long. My Man’s Gone Now hung and shimmered. The lush romanticism and sometimes elegiac melancholy drew us in. It was a jolt to realise how early in the evening it was as they drew to a close. We were there for the first of two sets of the evening, the second live-streamed around the country.

There’s a spontaneity, immediacy and connection between people to live performance that embraces performers and audience and it was a joy to be there. Occasional glitches can somehow add to it, the lights plunged the hall into darkness mid-song at one point without serious consequence. It was a great start to Wiltshire Music Centre’s return series. They’ve set a high standard to maintain.

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