Recent Listening: Woody Shaw

Woody Shaw: The Complete Muse Sessions (Mosaic)

In a couple of record dates when Woody Shaw was 21 and in a dozen years through the 1970s and ‘80s, Muse Records captured some of the trumpeter’s most innovative and inspired work. When Shaw emerged, it was clear that Freddie Hubbard had influenced the younger man but, as he was to demonstrate, the model Shaw woody-shaw-complete-muse-sessionsreflected most profoundly was not a trumpeter but a saxophonist, John Coltrane. The characterization of Shaw as a Hubbard clone persists in some quarters to this day, but at his most brilliant he was one of the great individualists of his generation of jazz artists. His intelligence, creative drive and technical mastery are plain to hear in his solos on the five quintet pieces he recorded with tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson in late 1965. “Cassandranite” and “Three Muses” from those sessions are early indicators of his gift for composition as well as playing.

By 1974, Shaw had processed Coltrane’s innovations so that when he recorded “The Moontrane,” a piece he wrote in his teens, he was indicating the way out of what many young musicians saw as a creative dead zone in which jazz was languishing in the early ’70s. Shaw helped demonstrate that it was possible to admire Coltrane, even adore him as a guru, without apeing his every mannerism. In pieces such as “The Moontrane” “Zoltan” and “Katrina Ballerina,” Joe Bonner’s “Love Dance” and Larry Young’s “Obsequious,” Shaw reached a level of expressiveness, headlong linear development and freedom from post-bop conventions that was not only ahead of his time; this music from three and four decades ago is ahead of much of the rote, formulaic jazz of our time. The Mosaic box set makes it clear to what an extent Shaw was at once a liberator of the music and a preserver of tradition.

His respect for the mainstream is manifest in the set’s final two CDs containing 14 standards, among them “The Touch Of Your Lips,” “There Is No Greater Love,” “It Might As Well Be Spring” and “All The Way,” which concludes with a riveting Shaw cadenza on flugelhorn. He also plays, faster than fast, on trumpet “The Woody Woodpecker Song,” often quoted in solos but rarely, if ever before, given recognition as a full-fledged vehicle for improvisation. Shaw’s and pianist Kenny Barron’s solos elevate the song’s stature so that the 1948 novelty almost seems to belong with “Imagination,” “If I Were A Bell,” “Dat Dere” and “Stormy Weather.” In several of the sessions, markedly in the standards albums, Shaw’s and trombonist Steve Turre’s compatibility is essential to the music’s feeling of cohesiveness—and its humor.

The five pieces Shaw recorded with his seven-piece band at the 1976 Berlin Jazz Festival—notably the epic “Hello to the Wind”—are enduring examples of the possibilities for harmonic texture in medium-sized jazz groups. In terms of sheer improvisational exuberance, the exchanges on the Berlin version of “Obsequious” between Shaw and trombonist Slide Hampton and those between saxophonists Rene McLean and Frank Foster rank with the most exhilarating chases ever captured on record.

His contemporaries and a number of perceptive older musicians understood Shaw’s importance and welcomed the opportunity to work with him. His teaming with Dexter Gordon, commemorated on Gordon’s Columbia albums, enhanced the saxophonist’s triumphant return to the United States after decades in Europe. The list of Shaw’s collaborators in this seven-CD set is a cross-section of leading players that includes, as mentioned, Henderson, Foster, McLean, Hampton, Turre, Barron and Young. Others are Herbie Hancock, Frank Strozier, Ron Carter, Buster Williams, Ray Drummond, Victor Lewis, Peter Leitch, Kenny Garrett, Neil Swainson, Cedar Walton, Louis Hayes, Steve Turre and the avant gardists Anthony Braxton and Muhal Richard Abrams. As usual with Mosaic sets, production is first rate, with thorough discographical information, plenty of photographs of Shaw and several of his sidemen and interesting session-by-session notes by his son, Woody Shaw III. Audio remastering by Malcolm Addey is excellent.

Shortly before his death, deteriorating vision, addiction, his uneven lifestyle and a subway accident in which he lost an arm brought an end to Shaw’s career. Throughout the Mosaic set, his intellectual and physical energy, harmonic innovation and mastery of melody are reminders of what we lost when he died at the age of 44 in 1989, two years after the last of these Muse sessions.

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  1. says

    The jazz world misses Woody Shaw. He was the only trumpet master who extended the technical possibilities of the trumpet without sounding like a circus.

    His great first big influences were Louis Armstrong and … Harry James. Then came Booker Little, Eric Dolphy and of course Trane, who helped to form his musical language – combined with the outer-musical, the political happenings of the 1960’s, the racism, the increasing problems of finding gigs as a pure, most innovative jazz musician like Woody Shaw.

    He managed to inherit the unwieldy quarter interval into the never ending creative flow of his improvisations like no other trumpeter. Where other musicians sounded technically cliched when trying to sound like John Coltrane or McCoy Tyner, Woody (together with the similar creative Canadian contemporary Kenny Wheeler) made it all sound natural, almost easy.

    He had a perfect embouchure, and so he was never in danger of overblowing it like Freddie. Woody seemed to be much freer than Hubbard, more serious, and he – as far as I know – never betrayed art by trying to make a quick buck with trips to pop, or to fusion places.

    R.I.P. master Woody Shaw. Your brilliant message won’t be forgotten.

    To see him with one of his last quartets, see what Steve Provizer put up on his YouTube channel. It’s a great joy to watch & to listen Woody play one of Monk’s master pieces “Bemsha Swing”, or the old jazz warhorse “There Is No Greater Love.” He and his young band really took it seriously, although it was “only” a jazz brunch in Boston:

    • says

      So, I have not listened to too much Woody Shaw – yet. Nor, have I heard pianist Stanley Cowell in this YT video. Nonetheless, I don’t believe I’d ever heard anyone quote Spike Jones in a jazz solo before, as Cowell does at 1:54-57…AND AGAIN… at 2:30-35.

      Of course I realize that it’s not really a Spike Jones tune he’s referencing, but I don’t know what the original is. :-)

      This made my morning. Thanks for sharing, Bruno!

  2. Peter Orne says

    Fantastic summation: “this music from three and four decades ago is ahead of much of the rote, formulaic jazz of our time. The Mosaic box set makes it clear to what an extent Shaw was at once a liberator of the music and a preserver of tradition.”

  3. Terry Martin says

    The first time I heard a Woody Shaw track that made me sit up and take notice was Fats Waller’s ‘Jitterbug Waltz’. The way he played outside the chords made me laugh, I’d fooled around with trumpet and was fairly competent, but the way he played was out of anything I’d ever heard. He was truly ‘the next step’ in the history of jazz trumpet players.