For the three decades of Marlena Shaw's career, people have been asking a musical question that's been with us since the 1930s: Is she is or is she ain't a jazz singer? When she started singing for Count Basie's band in 1967--in a post previously held by heavyweights like Jimmy Rushing, Billie Holiday, and Joe Williams--she already had a pop hit ("Mercy, Mercy, Mercy") under her belt. And five years later, after she left the Count, she courted the 70s pop audience with slick disco arrangements and the R & B flavor of her salty-sweet, streetwise singing. Calling her 1975 album Who Is This Bitch, Anyway? (Blue Note) probably didn't endear her to the jazz community either; consequently, when she reemerged in the 80s as a sexy jazz stylist and smart improviser, it took the appropriate listeners a while to catch on. Her 1987 Verve debut, a delightful club date called It Is Love, ushered her back into the blues wing of jazz's big house, sailing through a program that included "Day In, Day Out" and "Them There Eyes." Shaw commands a wide spectrum of black American vocal music: the version of "The Nearness of You" on her 1996 disc, Dangerous (Concord), drags the pristine Hoagy Carmichael tune off its pedestal with growls, swoops, and sly asides that borrow from Carmen McRae, Esther Phillips, Aretha Franklin, and the O'Jays. Since 1937 countless singers have rendered the song as a hymn to yearning, but Shaw mixes the congas up front in a provocative stutter-shuffle beat and vamps out of the tune with the line "C'mon baby, take the ring outta my nose and put it on my finger"--an idiom I doubt occurred to Hoagy. As for that old question--is she is or is she ain't--the best answer is probably yes. Shaw's tough, bright, note-bending blend of jazz, pop, and R & B, frosted with ultrahip cabaret, stands on its own. Saturday, 8 and 11 PM, Abbey Pub, 3420 W. Grace; 773-478-4408.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Sheryl Naday.