Welcome to our second evening of Ladies’ Night Jazz Bar where underrepresented female jazz artists show off their talents. I’m happy to say that no underaged drinkers were arrested last time and the only brawls were between two hands clapping for Karen Aoki and Rika Tanaka.
Now please welcome tonight’s two terrifically talented African American vocalists: Shirley Crabbe and Alicia Olatuja
Shirley Crabbe. Photo: shirleycrabbe.com.Starting out with Irvin Berlin’s classic, “Isn’t This a Lovely Day,” Shirley Crabbe’s second album Bridges (2018) immediately pays homage to her idol, Ella Fitzgerald. Although many have compared her favorably to the Queen of Jazz, I think Crabbe shines on her own merit. And though her voice isn’t shattering glass anytime soon, it does create a mellifluous space to slip into and unwind. The song wanders pleasantly yet noticeably.
With a fascinating ability to give soulful belt, Crabbe doesn’t need to. She’s “Taking a Chance on Love” and we’re rooting alongside her all the way. The bass is thrumming, the lights have lowered slightly, and if cigarettes were allowed, smoke would be shading the stage. In comes the piano, brightening the scene—the drums keeping pace. What I love about Bridges is the control. Sometimes a band gets lost in allowing each instrument its little solo. Though this is a great way to spread the spotlight (the backstage hands should be paid overtime), I feel it can sometimes interrupt the melody and the flow of a piece. However, these arrangements deliver uniqueness without losing their original tune, without handing the song over to those self-important instruments (what do they think they are anyways?).
My favorite track is “The Bridge” on her aforementioned 2018 album. Picking up the beat, fingers want to be a’snappin’, there’s still a sense of artful delicacy—for after all, we’re building a bridge of love, a bridge to love. Written by Donald Vega with lyrics by Crabbe, “The Bridge” soars out and around the tables that seem to shuffle closer in order to catch the dimming end of voice and piano. Even when love songs take the form of earworms digging their way to our brains, Shirley Crabbe somehow manages to transform them into beatific butterflies behind our eyes. It is not often that the perfect stride is hit; such songs either rely on clichéd rhythms and rhymes or try to be too cutesy (though I will admit this does work well for fellow jazz singer Cyrille Amiée). Like her fabulous track “You Taught My Heart to Sing” on her 2011 release Home, this song also offers much in the way of energy and melody. It is nearly impossible to take a swig of drink as hands want to sway to the upbeat tempo.
My aunt, who first got me into jazz, told me that if the musician’s voice or playing doesn’t standout, regardless of how accomplished they are technically, it is easy to pass them by. What makes a great artist, jazz or otherwise, is the ability to “make new.” Shirley Crabbe has a bountiful imagination and the talent to create unique compositions that intrigue. Fast, slow, sad, jovial: Crabbe carries the tune—and us with it—to new heights, to newer points of view showcasing that when passion is paired with creativity, the inkwell of the mind will never dry.
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