Keeper of the flame
by Piotr Michalowski
Jazz singers are normally not my beat. When it comes to singers, I prefer classical, blues, and folk warblers. I do have some favorites, however, and among them is Detroit's magnificent Shahida Nurullah. I first heard her many years ago on a sleepy night at the old Bird of Paradise, where she won me over with a lovely rendition of Kermit the Frog's pensive lament "It's Not Easy Bein' Green." This may not seem like a great vehicle for a jazz vocalist, but Nurullah made it her own, without tricks, without bathos, and without scatting, but with a direct simplicity that evoked Billie Holiday and a vocal control that reminded me of Sarah Vaughan. She may bring to mind such illustrious precursors, but her sound and phrasing are all her own.
Since that evening at the Bird I have heard her many times in various settings, and my admiration for her musicianship has grown steadily. Whether swinging on standards, rocking the blues, or gently swaying a bossa nova, she delves deeply into a song without affectation and without unnecessary vocal acrobatics. She seeks out unusual pieces to sing and has even been known to offer texts in original languages such as Portuguese. Her strong musical training at Cass Tech, a school that has produced many famous jazz players, is evident in her intelligent and soulful approach to melody, phrasing, and rhythm. It is not easy to make a living as a jazz singer in Detroit. But Nurullah has persevered, and when a terrible accident left her with injuries that would have overwhelmed most people, she overcame them by sheer force of will, and with the love and help of friends from the Motor City's close-knit jazz community.
Indeed, she is a vital member of this group, which has worked hard to keep alive the flame of the city's rich tradition. She has worked regularly with Kenny Cox, Marion Hayden, Donald Walden, Teddy Harris, Marcus Belgrave, and
others, as well as with ex-Detroiters Yusef Lateef and Geri Allen. In 1986 pianist Allen recorded an album with many of her Detroit friends, including Nurullah. The reception to Open on All Sides in the Middle was somewhat mixed, but when a small version of the same band toured Europe, they were warmly greeted. Because alto saxophonist Steve Coleman, who was present on the recording, could not come along, Nurullah also vocalized Coleman's parts, to much acclaim.
Shahida Nurullah teams up with pianist Tad Weed at the Kerrytown Concert House Saturday, May 4, for an evening of jazz interpretations of movie songs. You can expect to hear perennial favorites like "Laura" or "Little Boy Lost." But I'll be waiting for that great Muppet tune.
[Originally published in May, 2002.]