ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN 2015
JANUARY 28, 2024
When you think of a city like London, you think it’s surely impossible, for there are still little pockets of uncharted territory, but I’m always surprised at the secrets that cities like London still manage to keep. Ronnie Scott’s is both imposing and subtly welcoming as it stands there on Frith Street in the heart of Soho, and since the 1960s, it has played host to the world's biggest names in jazz. As one walks into the main room for the first time, the main thing that hits you are the black-and-white pictures of past legends who’ve graced the stage.
Coming to a venue like this has the power to be an overwhelming experience, as you are sitting in a space that has played such an unbelievable role in live jazz music in the UK. This is the venue where Nina Simone had her infamous residencies and where she recorded the incredible 1984 Live at Ronnie Scott’s album. Sitting down, I tried not to let my eyes rest too long on something or a certain image, as I wanted to soak up every inch of the place.
It’s no easy task to be the opening band for an artist like Shaw, but the Leo Richardson Quartet seemed undaunted by the task and played several classic jazz tracks that filled the room. Their opening number, Sackle Woe, gave the crowd a great introduction to where the Quartet was heading and was quickly followed by Tippin'. But it would be their only ballad, Body & Soul by Johnny Green, that slowed everything down and allowed you to just flow to the music, allowing the guys to simply carry you.
They brought their set to a close with Ray Noble’s Cherokee, which certainly did leave you buzzing for more. There is something about jazz music that remains current and fresh while, at the same time, managing to maintain its age. Watching the Quartet, one sees and feels the history coming through every note. All of a sudden, you’re transported to a smoke-filled basement bar that’s too small for the number of patrons that have come from the suburbs to be taken away from themselves. You sway, watch, applaud, shake your head, and relax as you let the music overtake you.
Part of the opening act's job is to get the audience revved up for the main act. I would be seriously remiss if I didn’t say with assured certainty that The Leo Richardson Quartet certainly did that.
I first saw Marlena Shaw at The Sage Gateshead’s more intimate and inspiringly named Hall 2 a good six years or so ago. It was around that time that her eternal original hit California Soul was re-used once again for a commercial in the UK. The song has become one of Shaw’s best-known records, and its simple, upbeat message has the power to draw in the listener in the warmest possible way.
"Shaw hasn’t lost any of her punch and is still able to craft a beautifully rounded show, and even if she has to pace herself a little more, she still gives a stunning performance."
Marlena Shaw comes to the UK every year for a week-long residency at Ronnie Scott's, and judging from the packed Tuesday night house and the sold-out dates throughout the week, it appears the London audiences can’t get enough of the soul-jazz legend. It seems as though we get too few opportunities to see musical icons like Shaw. Someone who managed to keep a film hold of her career from the word go and continues to tour much to the delight of her audiences.
There is a stunning authority to Shaw’s voice the moment she opens her mouth to sing, and she guides the audience through her musical history with ease. We feel every bit of her history and the musical legacy that she’s crafted with her walking onto stage to a film favourite, Let's Wade in the Water, quickly followed by When You’re Gone. Shaw knows where she has come from and the wealth of experience she’s had, from working with some of the undisputed greats, from Count Bessie to Sammy Davis Jr., to being an accomplished lyricist. Every song provides Shaw with the opportunity to connect with her audiences and bring them on this musical journey.
Though in her 70s, Shaw hasn’t lost any of her punch and is still able to craft a beautifully rounded show, and even if she has to pace herself a little more, she still gives a stunning performance. The Shaw show is a fine balancing act between asides to the audiences, stories—both really funny and sometimes very rude—and little dabs of light on her remarkable history.
Shaw is able to give a unique reality to her music, which is brought to life by the stories and characters she shares that inject each song with her stamp of authenticity. Momma and Daddy’s are always present, as well as a few wayward gentlemen callers, divorce, and advice, as well as the odd warning or two and something rather vital about a short-bald man.
Some of the show's highlights are firmly etched in Shaw’s repertoire, in the form of Woman from the Ghetto, which remains rich and salient and is a delightful cover of the immortal Wonderful World. The show is split into two parts, and it’s fair to say that by the second time Shaw comes on stage, she’s there to blow the roof off the place, which she does with time to spare. When she starts to sing her own immortal classic California Soul it never feels like 'ah, that’s the one we’ve been waiting for'; it just feels fresh and timely.
The interaction with the audience is small, with two latecomers getting a little more attention than they deserved, but she keeps a firm hold of the audience, and that connection she makes is never lost. We are there in part to see a musical icon, and Shaw never disappoints. A voice now filled with age and experience remains strong, effective, and powerful.