July 22, 2019 - Reviewed by John Hoglund for Cabaret Scenes
Multi-award-winning jazz vocalist Shirley Crabbe fills her romantic album with quality tracks that are in a league with the best of them. Every cut matters. Her clarion-toned, rangy contralto is fueled by elegant phrasing and supple nuances that meld together with some remarkable musicians led by Donald Vega. It all makes for an intelligent disc that has garnered praise from the jazz world. And, she received a 2019 Bistro Award for this CD. Her sound is sweet and sassy and in perfect control with a warmth that on occasion recalls Ella Fitzgerald (who is her biggest influence).
Irving Berlin’s “Isn’t This a Lovely Day,” which was written for the 1935 Astaire-Rogers film Top Hat, has been recorded by many greats from that golden era of song, from Bing Crosby, Dick Haymes, and Billie Holiday to Diana Krall and Tony Bennett. It’s a familiar tune that became a popular mainstay in its day (Astaire recorded it three times). Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong even made waves with their duet of the song in a 1956. Here, Crabbe puts her own joi de vivre stamp on it, deftly supported by a superb arrangement by David Budway, and makes us forget past offerings. Such effortless quality permeates the album, which also includes some originals. She brings a cool styling to “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was” (Rodgers & Hart), with a haunting horn solo by Brandon Lee; following Clovis Nicolas’s driving bass line on “Taking a Chance on Love” (John Latouche/Ted Fetter/Vernon Duke), she simply swings.
With her experience in opera and a lifetime of gospel singing, there are no flaws here. The title track by Milton Nascimento is a classic refrain that exudes a cache of emotions. Crabbe gently nails the fluidity like few others on an extraordinary cut that is perfection. Vega’s flawless piano accompaniment soars throughout. Their brand of musical rapport continues on her own “Promise Me” (written with Vega) in a smooth-as-silk reading that penetrates without drawing on the melodramatics sometimes used by less-informed vocalists. “Thief in the Night” is a 1935 Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz rarity introduced by Ethel Waters. Crabbe slides through this romantic ditty with ease in an arrangement by Budway, making the track distinct on every level.
Her gladsome delivery on the hymn “Blessed Assurance” (Fanny Crosby/Phoebe Knapp) is never beset with overwhelming divinity as a gospel closer. A sweeping jazz beat flows through her performance like a river and shows a visionary and a believer—which is what she clearly is—and that is what listeners of this exceptional CD will feel once they discover this album and the gift that is Shirley Crabbe. She is an important jazz vocalist who is destined to take her place in a league with the likes of the late Nancy Wilson and the other ladies who have kept solid jazz singing alive.
The impeccable band consists of Budway (piano/arrangements), Clovis Nicholas (bass), Ulysses Owens, Jr. and Alvester Garnett (drums), Brandon Lee (trumpet), and a string quartet composed of Chris Cardona, Sean Carney, Todd Low, and Stephanie Cummins. They’re all led by the great Donald Vega, who also plays piano and arranged most of the album.