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Description:Featuring Shirley Crabbe with Donald Vega, Jon Burr and David Glasser.
Shirley Crabbe knows what it means to be blessed. When an operation on her vocal chords gave her a second chance at a career as a singer, she plunged back into the jazz scene and jump started her career, earning a series of awards including placing in the top five at the 2010 Jazz Mobile "Best of the Best" vocal competition. The release of her debut album “Home” announces the arrival of a major new artist who invests each plush, rounded note with the love and conviction of someone deeply grateful to be pursuing her calling.
Featuring nine songs, “Home” opens with Crabbe’s soaring arrangement of Leonard Bernstein’s “Lucky To Be Me,” a tune that could easily serve as her theme song. Houston Person’s sinewy soul-drenched tenor sax solo does more than compliment Crabbe’s lustrous voice. Since the start of his 35-year bandstand communion with the late, sorely missed Etta Jones (who mentored Crabbe), Person has often been found keeping company with jazz’s finest singers, and his presence here feels like a benediction.
Defining herself through a savvy mix of material, Crabbe isn’t afraid to tackle some well-worn standards. She effortlessly navigates trombonist Matt Haviland’s brisk and sassy arrangement of “Detour Ahead,” while her arrangement of “Summertime” transforms the lullaby into a rousing, wake-the-baby West African polyrhythmic celebration. But Crabbe is also keen to find undiscovered treasures, and she hits pay dirt again and again by casting a wide net.
“I love the American Songbook,” Crabbe says. “It’s so hard to find things that everybody hasn’t done already, but there are treasures out there if you look beyond the usual jazz sources.”
Case in point is the album’s title track, a sumptuous and unaccountably neglected ballad from “The Wiz.” Crabbe’s stunning arrangement of McCoy Tyner’s exquisite composition “You Taught My Heart to Sing,” which features a unabashedly romantic lyric by legendary songwriter Sammy Cahn, is another standout, as is her lustrous take on Roland Hanna’s “Seasons,” a tune the piano master wrote for Sarah Vaughan’s classic 1982 album “Crazy And Mixed Up.”
Crabbe turns Carole King’s “So Far Away” into an ache-filled lament far darker than the original recording, and makes a convincing case that Stephen Sondheim’s “Not While I’m Around” is an overlooked gem ripe for jazz interpretation, infusing the ballad with a tenderness that would be chilling in its original “Sweeny Todd” context. She demonstrates an equally judicious ear on Oscar Brown Jr.’s “Strong Man,” a rendition inspired by Abbey Lincoln’s classic 1957 Riverside recording “That’s Him.” Haviland supplied the sturdy arrangement, and Houston Person contributes another lyrical solo.
Possessing a voice as rich and plush as any singer on the scene, Crabbe describes herself as a work in progress, but her maturity informs every song she explores. She never presses to show off her conservatory technique, or bends a note to sell a sentiment. While she’s been known to scat in performances, she eschews vocal flights here, concentrating on rendering each melody with precision and care.
“I always feel I’m just a singer that likes to sing jazz, more than a jazz vocalist,” Crabbe says. “I love singing classical music, when my whole body is resonating. Intellectually I love it, but with jazz I just feel like I’m free. I can rely on some technique, but I can forget it too, so it’s more about color, flexibility and musical ideas.”
Finding the right accompanists has been an essential part of Crabbe’s creative process. She’s attracted a cast of stellar young musicians, including pianists Jim West and Nicaraguan-born, Los Angeles-raised Donald Vega, a Juilliard graduate who has recorded with guitarist Anthony Wilson, tenor saxophonist Bennie Wallace and bass legend Al McKibbon. As the album’s music director and co-producer, Vega played an essential role in the project, keeping it on track with a steady stream of wise musical and career council. “He is a generous musician and a great advisor,” Crabbe says.
Providing the kind of sophisticated and sensitive support that singer’s long for is the rhythm section tandem of drummer Alvester Garnett, a supple player best known for his extensive work with violinist Regina Carter, and veteran bassist John Burr. Horn players Haviland, Dave Glasser and Brandon Lee, whose “Not While I’m Around” trumpet solo serves as an ideal foil for Crabbe, contribute tasteful voicings and brass textures.
“Matt’s a good friend, and he really came through with some beautiful arrangements,” Crabbe says. “The musicians seem excited, and I’m hoping that the CD is the beginning for us.”
Born in the Bronx, Crabbe moved with her family to suburban Rockland County, about half an hour north of Manhattan, when she was 11. Growing up in a Caribbean family—her parents hail from the British West Indies—she was surrounded by music and dance. Crabbe sang in church, and first became intrigued by jazz as a teenager when she saw Ella Fitzgerald’s brief but thrilling appearance with Abbott and Costello in 1942’s “Ride ‘Em Cowboy” singing her hit “A-Tisket A-Tasket.” Up until college her formal training focused on operatic technique and repertoire, but once she started studying voice at Northwestern University she joined a band with a jazzy R&B feel influenced by Steely Dan.
When she returned to New York to continue her classical studies at Manhattan School of Music, she also took advantage of the city’s singularly rich jazz resources. While exploring classic recordings by Ella, Carmen, Billie and Sarah, she attended several workshops produced by Cobi Narita where she performed with veteran masters like Harold Mabern and Jamil Nasser and got positive encouragement and advice from Etta Jones and Dakota Staton. But just as she was finishing her MA and breaking into the club scene, she suffered a debilitating vocal chord injury.
“I kept singing for a while, but eventually my voice became unusable,” Crabbe says. “I couldn’t sustain anything. I really had to face the possibility that I would never be able to sing again. I had to try to refocus my brain on what makes a singer a singer. Eventually in 2006 I wound up having surgery, and 2007 I started singing again. I’m really just starting all over again.”
During her years off the scene, Crabbe focused on other avenues for exploring her love of music, and which led to teaching music to children. Since regaining her voice, she has appeared in several stage productions, including “Coming to the Mercy Seat” at Shetler Studio’s Theater 54 and “Ain’t Misbehavin’” at the Elmwood Theater. She continues to study jazz masters and pioneering popular singers, re-immersing herself in the music of her first inspiration, Ella Fitzgerald, and the classic recordings of Ethel Waters. She’s still honing her craft and developing her approach, but “Home” leaves no doubt that Crabbe has arrived. She’s an artist overflowing with soul who has found the ideal repertoire for expressing her gift.