Philadelphia jazz will not end with the closing of Zanzibar Blue, but the landscape will be thinner. Some wonder whether the club was a victim of its own success, priced out of an area that it helped enliven for the last 12 years.
Opening in 1990 on 11th Street between Spruce and Pine, Zanzibar Blue moved to Broad and Walnut several years later. There's talk of another new location, although leads haven't yet materialized. Asked about the closing, co-owner Robert Bynum was stoic. "We like to move on," he said, smiling. (He and his brother Benjamin also run the blues club Warmdaddy's and the nightspot Brave New World.)
In its final major engagement, Zanzibar Blue featured vocalist Melissa Walker with the Christian McBride Trio. "You're making history," emcee Earle Brown declared Saturday in front of a sold-out crowd. Then he introduced the band: McBride, the renowned bassist, with two highly sought-after colleagues: pianist Aaron Goldberg and drummer Clarence Penn. In addition to being one of Philly's finest exports, McBride is Walker's husband.
The trio began in high bebop spirits with Oscar Pettiford's "Tricotism." McBride then switched to fretless electric bass, and Goldberg to Fender Rhodes, as Walker took the stage. She sang in a dusky alto as the feel shifted from jazz to funk. Effective contrast was a theme: originals and standards, acoustic and electric, swinging jazz but also a more pop-oriented sound. All of it was textured and smartly arranged.
From New York by way of Alberta, Walker combines the brassiness of Carmen McRae with the quasi-classical timbre of Sarah Vaughan. Her pitch was less than consistent, but her command of phrasing and rhythm was impressive. So was her uncommon feel for songs as varied as Janis Ian's "At Seventeen," Jerry Jeff Walker's "Mr. Bojangles," and Cole Porter's "Miss Otis Regrets." Her duet with McBride on the standard "Just In Time" was crisp but laid-back, a high point. But ultimately, she was outshone by the talent-rich band. Goldberg, no mere accompanist, was in exceptional form.