Marlena Shaw ‘Sweet Beginnings’ (BBR) 5/5

marlena-shawNew Yorker by birth, singer Marlena Shaw first made an impact via Chicago when signing for the famous Chess label in 1963. The label’s soul and jazz off shoot Cadet was to be the launching pad for her lengthy career and two critically acclaimed albums followed with two minor R & B/pop hits in vocal adaptations of jazz instrumentals, ‘Mercy, Mercy, Mercy’ and ‘Wade in the Water’. Shaw left Chess in 1968 and for a few years embarked upon a sporadic live performance with the Count Basie Orchestra. Her studio career was re-energised when in 1972 she signed with the prestigious Blue Note label and among her recordings there ‘Live in Montreux’ remains a bona fide classic. Fast forward four more years to 1977 when Shaw left Blue Note and instead signed to major label Columbia and this is where the current re-issue fits in. Marlena Shaw belongs to a select number of singers who are equally adept at jazz and soul idioms and throughout her career, both live and in the studio, Shaw has straddled the two effortlessly. This album covers both sides of her output and in this task she is accompanied by some of the all-time great session musicians. Both bassist James Jamerson and percussionist Eddie ‘Conga’ Brown were seasoned Motown instrumentalists who recorded with Marvin Gaye and many others while jazz musicians of the calibre of trumpeter Don Ellis were on hand to ensure that the recording was a truly swinging affair. Keyboardist Jay Graydon would go on to produce Al Jarreau while arranger and producer Bert de Coteaux would give Shaw a more contemporary feel and became synonymous with soul/disco outfit the Crown Heights Affair.

Pride of place has to go to ‘Yu-Ma/Go away little boy’ and of the many versions Shaw recorded this is arguably the pick of the bunch. The epic monologue has seldom been bettered and the main song was a derivation by the singer of Steve Lawrence’s ‘Go away little girl’. Perhaps only Lou Rawls’ live monologues for Capitol and his later work for Philadelphia International have in any shape or form equalled this, but this magnificent interpretation is an all-time classic and was probably motivated by Marlena Shaw’s live supper club performances when ad-libbing was greatly appreciated by the receptive audience, and the considerable shortcomings of the male psyche from a female perspective voiced within in humorous fashion only serve to make the lyrics all the more memorable. However, it is not the only treat on offer and this writer is especially partial to the light and breezy jazzer, ‘Look at me, look at you. We’re flying’. This fusion of jazz and soul arguably served as the template for the then debutante Phyllis Hyman and further on in time for Anita Baker. Jean Carne would be a worthy contemporary of Shaw’s. Sublime orchestrations and a vocal delivery to match are a feature of ‘I think I’ll tell him’, another mid-tempo jazz-infused vehicle. What gives this album extra depth are the more contemporary soul numbers, with a definite hint of film soundtracks about them. A lovely uptempo song is ‘The writing’s on the wall’ with deeply soulful vocal harmonies courtesy of the Waters sisters while the title track is awash with wah-wah rhythm guitars and delicate flute. In stark contrast the gentle minor chord ballad, ‘Walk Softly’ demonstrates Shaw’s sheer versatility. One single was released from the album, the classy uplifting soul piece, ‘Pictures and memories’ and a separate shorter 45 version is available here as a bonus. Post-Columbia, Marlena Shaw would record a modern soul album favourite for indie label South Bay in 1983, ‘Let me in your life’, and then returned to a largely jazz repertoire in the 1990s signing with Californian jazz label Concord. However, ‘Sweet Beginnings’ will remain for ever one of the major highlights in her career. Extended and informative liner notes shed light on Shaw’s career are by writer/producer Christian John Wikane.

Tim Stenhouse