The audience at Marlena Shaw’s opening set at Catalina Bar & Grill on Tuesday night was very small. If it wasn’t quite the performer’s nightmare of a lonely audience of friends and relatives, it was, nonetheless, the sort of empty-table reception that might have driven a lesser artist through a quick show and an early exit.
Not so for this singer, who’s making a fairly rare Los Angeles appearance. Singing a selection of material that avoided most of the jazz-vocalist chestnuts, Shaw, who’s appearing through Sunday, worked with a vigor and intensity that generated enough charisma to charm a sold-out Hollywood Bowl crowd.
The few strikingly familiar songs in the set were transformed by unusual rhythms or offbeat readings. Her soaring vocal on “Unforgettable,” for example, was framed in up-tempo samba rhythms (featuring drummer Sherman Ferguson playing with hands, fists and fingers).
“Them There Eyes” benefited from Shaw’s remarkable scatting ability--performed with a pristine tonal accuracy and harmonic imagination comparable to the finest work of Ella Fitzgerald and Mel Torme. And “Go ‘Way, Little Boy” (a variation on the original) was introduced via a long, hilarious description of a relationship gone awry.
Shaw was equally appealing on the less familiar “Devil May Care,” an extended, hard-swinging blues, and a closing gospel medley. Supported by the impeccable Larry Nash on piano, Andy Simpkins on bass and Ferguson on drums, her world-class jazz singing eventually had her small group of listeners responding with the enthusiasm of a full house.