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Marlena Shaw has every reason to project a slightly world-weary stage persona. She first performed at Harlem’s Apollo when she was 10 years old, and had her first glimmer of commercial success in 1968 with a vocal cover of the modern jazz standard “Mercy Mercy Mercy” – she has since recorded it twice more “in the hopes she might get paid” – and the incendiary “Woman of the Ghetto”, this gig’s uplifting finale.
She subsequently spent four years on the road with the Count Basie Orchestra before relaunching her recording career with more traditional fare referencing the travails of personal relationships, albeit with a strong feminist twist. Yet her relaxed, self-deprecatory one-liners – “so many years, not just in show business but life, period” – are belied by the strength of her emotional commitment to her lyrics and the technical control of her singing. It won her a rare and deserved Ronnie Scott’s standing ovation – for her biggest hit, “California Soul”.
Shaw is one of the few vocalists who can apply the subtleties of jazz to the rigour of the blues without diluting either. Her first notes were nonchalantly ad-libbed harmonies that floated over the bustling bass line and flowery sentiments of “Rhythm of Love”. But although she adroitly stretched syllables and improvised dialogue, she always knuckled down to the nitty-gritty of delivering and projecting the melody and lyrics of the original, optimistic and personal on “Here’s to Life”, darker-toned with the horrors of the middle passage on “Look at you Look at Me”.
The last time I saw Shaw, the gulf between her and her band was simply too great, but at this gig the band were up to scratch, and Shaw was much more relaxed. Ernie McCone’s rock-solid bass fizzed melodically, Mark Van der Gucht’s guitar was appropriately warm-toned and the saxophonist/flautist Nathan Haynes was much more than filler, delivering soulful saxophone solos, spot-on harmonies and crowd-raising jazzy flute. But what really stood out was Shaw’s obvious commitment to her music, and the wry humour that showed she was totally at one with her stage persona.
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