The very young 441 Records has a great plan: bringing Sony and JVC Japanese releases to wider audiences... and this one is a corker. But then, so is Marlena Shaw, a fascinating performer who takes absolute (yet warm and friendly) command of every audience lucky enough to see her. This live CD, recorded at the B-flat club in Tokyo in 2002, conveys much of the excitement, but necessarily misses a few crucial aspects: her elementally expressive face and body, her often-hilarious patter between tunes, and the audience's sense of breathless anticipation, since Shaw puts her own unpredictable twist on whatever she sings.
In many ways, she's the musical equivalent of Cirque de Soleil, as graceful, risky and engaging, and with a strong undercurrent of sensuality – but whereas the Cirque characters are also slightly distanced and bizarre, Shaw is completely down-to-earth and accessible.
The first female vocalist to sign with Blue Note (in 1972), Shaw has covered the waterfront, including a four-year gig with Basie. There's a joyful, propulsive R&B feel to her up-tempo delivery, and her ballads are intimate and real. Shaw has a strong, flexible voice that can be rounded or rough; she uses a full range of textures to enhance the meaning of a lyric. And she and her band swing like crazy.
There's some fresh material on here - like the charming "Mon Cherie" and "Don't Ask to Stay Until Tomorrow," an anthem to one-night stands from the film "Looking for Mr. Goodbar." Shaw thoroughly funkifies "Feel Like Making Love," that rather sedate Roberta Flack hit, with powerful assistance from tenorist Rickey Woodard, and takes a slow torch to Dinah's "What a Difference a Day Makes." "Until I Met You" (aka the Basie classic, "Corner Pocket") is a delight, while "Round Midnight" gets a wake-up call.
When I played this CD in my car, I found myself grinning in traffic. 'Nuff said?
Personnel: Marlena Shaw (vocal, composer), Rickey Woodard (tenor sax), Clarence McDonald (piano), Jeff Chambers (bass), Ron Otis (drums)