Of all the references that reviewers use to describe jazz performances perhaps the most common is the term "swing." We are all familiar with it and yet it is one of the most difficult expressions to define precisely. Its essence involves subtle and artistic variations of established rhythms but the many techniques involved in this subtlety are too numerous to go into here. We can all agree that few jazzers have "swung" more mightily than figures like Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald and Joe Williams. Ironically, a sort of prodigy of Williams's is the subject of this review.
After recording a hit record "Mercy, Mercy, Mercy" in the 60's, Marlena Shaw attracted Basie's attention and performed with the band for over four years. In 1972 she became the first female vocalist to sign with Blue Note, and became a star wowing audiences far beyond the parameters of the jazz world. Since then she has evolved into one a handful of singers who deserve the label "living legend." No singer swings harder than Marlena Shaw.
The arsenal of weapons she utilizes to achieve this swing aristocracy include the usual brilliant phrasing that others have mastered. But beyond that, Shaw has remelodized, reharmonized and, above all, rerhythmized the music she performs with unequaled skill and taste. She has drawn upon her gospel, soul and R&B resources, incorporated the lessons of the Vaughans, Fitzgeralds and Washingtons and adapted the recent abstractions of the Carters and Wilsons. She has woven a swing tapestry that is so rich it cannot possibly be captured on CD or any other technology that may come along.
The significance of "live performance" elements which have played such a pivotal role in the career of Sonny Rollins are equally strategic in any attempt to analyze Marlena Shaw's genius. No recording will ever capture the plethora of calculated body language, the sotto voce nuances, the comic prosaic asides and the sheer visceral energy of a Shaw performance. These elements exist in other artists but Shaw's recipe is a mysterious elixir. She is the sorceress of swing.
Last week when Shaw performed at Jazz Au Bar (Gotham's latest posh jazz club) her swinging had reached new heights. Accompanied by an intriguing trio featuring pianist Dave Hazeltine, Bassist David Williams and drummer Neil Smith, Shaw conducted a proverbial clinic in the art of swing. The set contained many selections from her latest CD on the Village label but, as noted above, the CD is only the tip of the iceberg. In order to fully grasp the many dimensions of Marlena Shaw's swing art, you must see her live.
Strangely, a reviewer from Gotham's paper of record was present during Shaw's week at Jazz Au Bar and didn't even mention the word "swing' in his review... What was he thinking as Shaw virtually tore up the room?