February 20, 2008
Shirley Nanette- Vocals
Mel Brown- Drums
Tony Pacini- Piano
Dan Balmer- Guitar
Ed Bennett- Bass
The way I figure, it was destiny. I mean, on the way downtown to Jimmy's, I'm driving right into the face of a huge February moon as it passes nonchalantly by earth's shadow! Do you believe it? Just seeing the moon on a February night, in Portland, is a pretty big deal. Yes? But an eclipse?
So then I walk into Jimmy's ninety minutes before Shirley comes on, and the place is humming and buzzing like it's about to be party time. This crowd is ready. So it seems like a slam dunk: a clear February night, a gorgeous full moon shadow-dancing with earth, a buzzing full house. This is simply destined to be a fabulous night!
And that's exactly what it was. A few minutes past eight, JD makes the intros, and Tony Pacini, Dan Balmer, Ed Bennett and Mel Brown roar right into a wildly upbeat "Happy Talk," a familiar yet always newly satisfying opener for this superb quartet. Talk about setting the mood for the evening! The crowd was hooked from the opening bars, and they stayed hooked the entire evening. But what choice did they have? The Mel Brown Quartet (MBQ), which owns the Wednesday night spot at Jimmy Mak's, has matured into a stellar aggregation that shows all the qualities truly great ensembles display when they have played together for many years and have developed an uncannily sharp sense of each other's musical chops.
Just watch the interplay among them: Tony and Mel chuckling across the stage at each other's countless little nuances; Tony and Dan sending signals to each other, in approbation or apprehension of what just happened or what soon will. Ed missing nothing, catching all the nuance, never missing a beat, and Mel in full smile, eyeing each of his players at key moments, complementing their every note. It's organic, a wondrous, living thing.
After another upbeat, high energy tune, the beautifully turned out Shirley takes center stage, welcomes all, and jumps right in with her own high energy rendition of "Day By Day," followed by a too rarely heard and nicely delivered, "If I Had You." But lovely as these two openers were, they didn't quite match what happened from then on, when, starting with a Latin flavored "There Will Never be Another You," Miss Shirley Nanette definitely found her groove! It all just came together: the song, the singer, and the band, all a beautiful one, and that lovely congruence defined the rest of this fine evening of beautifully programmed, crisply delivered songs. Great arrangements, with a discernible Tony Pacini flavor to them, were of course a vital ingredient in the quality of the songs delivered. Twenty three of them, in fact, not including three MBQ instrumentals. Being a live recording, there were a few tunes that Shirley stopped after a false start, and smartly so, then re-started almost immediately after a new countdown, easily convincing everyone that that had been the right choice.
Shirley was all pro this night, belting out "That Old Black Magic" one moment, then sweetly and intensely admonishing "Be Anything, But Be Mine" in the next. She endeared herself to me forever by taking on the daunting "Skylark" with its murderous bridge, in a stunning duet with Dan Balmer, who in this tune, and in solos on a few other ballads, showed the audience just how beautiful and fitting understatement can be. Shirley took a moment to introduce each tune by title, and occasionally offered a comment or two. She did that and everything else on this wonderful night with taste and class. And let it be said loud and clear: this lady knows a song's story, and she sings its lyrics with the emotion they deserve. And that means she can almost be venomous in the revenge lyrics of "I want To Be Around" and then just as expertly and convincingly plain break your heart in the likes of "Afterthoughts" and Jobin's "How Sensitive."
Shirley Nanette, with that rich, vibratoed voice melted into the warmth and feelings and energies of Tony, Dan, Ed and Mel, made beautiful music. If you weren't able to be there Wednesday night, you're saved: the CD will follow soon, and your collection, augmented by this gem recorded live at Jimmy Mak's, will be much the richer for it!