This is a concept album in the sense of the thematic center being about the connections that we experience, enjoy, reject or simply lose. To help her tell the tale, she has brought along a cast of heavy hitters. Sitting the piano is Donald Vega (except on Isn’t This a Lovely Day, And So It Goes and Thief in the Night which are played by David Budway), Clovis Nicolas on bass, Ulysses Owens Jr. on drums (Alvester Garnett plays on Blessed Assurance and Taking a Chance on Love), and Brandon Lee on trumpet, with a string section composed of Chris Cardona and Sean Carney on violins, Todd Low on viola, and Stephanie Cummins on cello.
I read the personnel list and, seeing Vega and Owens, I was all in from the start. Then you hear Shirley sing… turn off the phone, lock the door, and remain uninterrupted as you hear the voice of the angels.
She opens the album with a great Irving Berlin tune, Isn’t This a Lovely Day. She admits that it was a tune she got from Ella Fitzgerald but Shirley is her own voice and has her own message and she makes the song her own with Budway’s understated, but very effective, piano work. And Owens plays just as subdued with the cumulative effect that on the first track of the album you are hearing Shirley’s magnificent voice front and center. The strings are a lovely support.
Taking a Chance on Love was made famous by the legendary Ethel Waters and Shirley and Budway do a one-woman show on Waters. This song was a perfect addition to the present album. We get to hear Vega (also the album’s musical director) and Alvester Garnett (drums) and Clovis Nicolas (bass) together here.
Next, Shirley takes on the wonderful Milton Nascimento tune Bridges. I am a huge fan of Nascimento, always have been, so to hear Shirley and the band do such wonderful honor to Bridges is a treat to my ears.
There's a bridge to tomorrow
There's a bridge from the past
There's a bridge made of sorrow
That I pray will not last
There's a bridge made of colors
In the sky high above
And I think that there must be
Bridges made out of love
Nascimento and Sarah Vaughan recorded the piece together and Shirley has achieved the daunting task of making her treatment something special and able to stand alone amidst so many great versions of the song.
She follows Bridges with The Bridge, a piece she wrote with Donald Vega. The theme should, by now, be obvious. The tune features sweet piano work by Vega and the bass and drums of Nicolas and Owens. These four together are enough to make you sing out loud.
Let us build a Bridge that’ll take us home
Dancing in the Light
One Girl, One Boy
Two Hearts set on Fire
Got to love it.
The Rodgers and Hart standard I Didn’t Know What Time It Was-- a favorite of Shirley’s—was arranged by Shirley and Vega. Brandon Lee offers a fine trumpet solo. The arrangement oscillates between a pulsating punctuation and a smooth swing with wonderful artistry from all concerned. Ulysses Owens, Jr., in particular, captured my attention throughout the tune with his accents.
Another Shirley and Vega original, Promise Me, is set well in the track listing. Something about this one made me sit up and take notice. I think it was the fragile plea of hoping for everlasting love and commitment. Shirley sings of the pain and disappointment of the past but her step into the future is something still tentative and in need of assurance. The tune is upbeat and cool but those lyrics made me see something beyond the current-presence of love, a fear of a repeating cycle.
Maybe I was just listening for it but, when she follows that tune with Michel Legrand’s Windmills of Your Mind, I was convinced of what I thought I heard. The arrangement is by Shirley and Vega and it is a beauty. Again, I am a big fan of Michel Legrand and Shirley and Vega make this a restatement of the sometime transience of romantic love; bridge that is definitely a toll road.
Shirley doesn’t let up with And So It Goes by Billy Joel. She stays with the motif of the crystalline nature of opening one’s heart. I admit I’m not a huge Billy Joel devotee but Shirley takes this Matt Haviland arrangement and creates a work of tragedy and beauty and, ultimately, hope. Wow. Really. Just wow.
Move along now.
Thief in the Night, the Dietz and Schwartz song for which Budway also wrote the lovely and warm string arrangement, is the penultimate piece on the album. It is a slow, beautiful stroll through a reminiscence of a love affair. So nicely done.
Shirley finishes this beautiful album with a surprise—I mean, a big surprise. Her final song is the classic Spiritual by Fanny J. Crosby, Blessed Assurance. I never saw it coming. It took me back to my childhood days in a southern church where the songs of Crosby were sung each and every service. Crosby was blind from shortly after birth and was a composer, poet, and missionary. She is said to have composed over 8,000 hymns and songs.
For Shirley to end her album with this is something truly extraordinary. In an album that speaks of the instability of romantic love, she concludes with a declaration of a higher love—a love that is guaranteed and is, in no way, fragile. Something and someone you can count on.
Talk about a bridge.
~Travis Rogers, Jr. is The Jazz Owl