To wit, Miles once launched this zinger in the general direction of Freddie Hubbard: “I’d rather hear Thad Jones miss one note than Freddie make ten.” Presumably Zen Master cum Don Rickles was simply applying some tough love in his own sweet way, because Freddie was universally revered as the prodigal trumpeter of his generation. Still, even so beloved a mentor and employer as Art Blakey used to consul his gifted young Jazz Messenger not to blow his brains out and try to play every damn note he could inside of eight bars.
Nevertheless, when Miles spoke of Woody Shaw–who emerged on Eric Dolphy’s Iron Man in 1963, seemingly fully formed as his own man, at the tender age of 18–there was no hint of equivocation.
“Woody Shaw? Now there’s a great trumpet player. He can play different from all of them”
Regrettably, out of sight often equals out of mind; and while lack of access to his recorded output and an all-too early demise may have diminished the trumpeter’s legacy, with the roll out of Woody Shaw: The Complete Muse Sessions [Mosaic], a remarkable 7-CD overview of his creative output both before and after the 1977-1981 major label showcase that was midwifed in good part by Miles Davis (and is likewise documented on another 6-CD box, Woody Shaw: The Complete Columbia Albums Collection), seekers after truth who might’ve missed out on Shaw’s trumpet mastery the first go-round, can now revel in a comprehensive overview of his greatness as a bandleader and composer.
I mean, if you love the trumpet—LOVE THE TRUMPET—and the pure liquid cherry center of the jazz tradition as it evolved from Louis Armstrong through the works of Roy Eldridge, Dizzy Gillespie, Fats Navarro, Clark Terry, Miles Davis, Chet Baker, Don Cherry, Clifford Brown, Lee Morgan, Freddie Hubbard, Booker Little, Woody Shaw, Lester Bowie and Wynton Marsalis, well then you owe it to yourself to pull out your credit cards and without a moment’s hesitation, plunk down for the Mosaic Woody Shaw box set, which represents an extraordinary body of work.
Because Woody Shaw was a remarkable jazz icon, very much his own man with his own music, who emerged as the next great enfant terrible of the trumpet hot on the heels of Lee Morgan, Freddie Hubbard and Booker Little in particular (who preceded Shaw as a key collaborator with Eric Dolphy)—all of the young titans who were inspired in large part by the musical example and vocabulary of Clifford Brown.
Blessed with a photographic memory and perfect pitch, Woody Shaw was not simply a great instrumentalist and improviser, but a brilliant composer and bandleader, who portrayed a singular vision of the hard bop tradition, with a degree of command, emotional commitment and aesthetic purity that resonates stronger than ever in 2013–some thirty plus years since he made his untimely exit from what was, for this brilliant, complex man, seemingly a veil of tears, at the tender age of 44.
Still, no matter how conflicted or unfulfilled or frustrated or sad Woody Shaw may have grown in his day to day life as a man, none of that is evident in the uniformly exceptional body of music he left behind, let alone in the achievements of those for whom he served as both mentor and inspiration, such as Wynton Marsalis, Terrence Blanchard and Wallace Roney, all of whom went on to become formidable trumpeters in their own right.
What remains amidst the recorded evidence, is a sense of striving and aspiration and struggle, a degree of consistency and excellence, that remains utterly inspiring, and which certainly inspired me these past several weeks to go on a Woody Shaw bender of epic proportions, as I reacquainted myself with the SOUND SIGNATURE of an inspirational figure in the history of American music, too often overlooked, whom I first encountered on fellow Newark-native Larry Young’s visionary Blue Note organ session Unity, with Joe Henderson and Elvin Jones, on which Shaw distinguished himself both as an instrumental voice and as a major jazz composer.
Denver native Ron Miles, one of contemporary music’s reigning trumpet masters—whether featured in jazz, classical or borderless settings—is a long-time admirer of Woody Shaw, with very personal insights into his musical breakthroughs, and he helps to frame Shaw’s contributions in their historical context.
“Woody Shaw reminds me a lot of Roy Eldridge,” Miles explains, “in that he was able to take ideas that were starting to be heard on the saxophone and make them sing on the trumpet. That’s because Roy and Woody both approached the trumpet with something akin to the velocity and vertical phrasing of a saxophone player.
“Eldridge of course came out of Coleman Hawkins while Woody Shaw was inspired by Eric Dolphy and John Coltrane. Curiously enough, given their unquestioned musical mastery, they’ve both been kind of pigeonholed as secondary historical figures that haven’t gotten their due because they emerged in between more radical explorers who were viewed as being outside the prevailing millieu. By that I mean, in their time, Roy and Woody were viewed as extensions of the mainstream, while their historical bookends were seen as departures: Eldridge between Armstrong and Gillespie; Woody between Miles and Lester.
“But both are players whose approaches extend beyond their instruments. I remember hearing Woody Shaw on those Montreux Summit albums and just having my jaw hit the floor. Such a feel and great ideas. And he played the heck out the trumpet. I was a huge Maynard fan at that time and that is why I bought the LP’s. But much like hearing Dinah Jams when Maynard hooked up with Clifford Brown and Clark Terry, hearing Woody and Maynard back to back on something like “Blues March” changed my life.”
Even a cursory pass at annotating highlights from Woody’s garden of boppish delights on this lovingly mastered and annotated box set is to deny readers the opportunity to discover this wonderful body of music for themselves. Allow us a few tidbits then…
Discs 1-3 cover 1974-1976, while discs 6-7, documenting the post-Columbia years, are comprised of sessions from 1983, 1986 and 1987 respectively: reflecting Shaw’s mature, ever-deepening harmonic subtlety, dark amber tone, eye-popping articulation (“Spiderman’s Blues”) and sumptuously swinging fluidity (“The Touch Of Your Lips” and “What’s New”) from what for me is the pick of the litter sonically and musically–a 1983 session featuring tribal elders Cedar Walton on piano, Buster Williams on bass and Victor Jones on drums (all still walking among us in 2013), where Shaw is the sole horn. Anyone miss the saxophone? Don’t need a saxophone when the trumpeter can throw down like that.
Masterful. Adult music by and for adults.
And disc 7 comes in a close second for return engagements, featuring as it does a beautifully balanced 1987 Van Gelder Studio recording of Shaw’s Lamborghini of a working band; trombonist Steve Turre, as always the perfect foil, with pianist Kirk Lightsey, bassist Ray Drummond and drummer Carl Allen on full cruise control. “Stormy Weather?” “You And The Night And The Music?” Tell me about it. Waiter? Check, please.
Elsewhere on the Mosaix box, by way of some back story, indulge me a brief tangent to recollect how as a jazz tadpole, my initial encounters with live jazz from 1970-1973 included much of the freer repertoire then propagating on the Lower East Side at Slugs on 3rd Street between Avenues B and C, as well as the music of more traditionally centered explorers at a venue such as the Village Vanguard; I was listening to Duke and Louis and Lester and Papa Jo Jones and Dizzy and Monk and Bud and Bird in my crib, but I was attending concerts by the likes of Alice Coltrane, Elvin Jones, Pharoah Sanders, Rashied Ali, McCoy Tyner, Milford Graves and Sun Ra. So, one might say that I go both ways, and we won’t even begin to discuss my love for those tributaries of American music which derive from blues and R&B and soul and funk and rock and electric jazz.
Still, as hectic an eclectic as I might be, when I returned to Manhattan from upstate NY for good back in 1976, one of my most meaningful experiences was that of the Woody Shaw Quartet at the Village Vanguard–featuring then-expatriate tenor icon Dexter Gordon in full hail-the-conquering-hero mode. Never had it so good.
Be that as it may, given this jazz tadpole’s early fascination with late Coltrane, the Miles-Wayne-Herbie-Ron-Tony Quintet, Ornette Coleman, Booker Little, Eric Dolphy, Max Roach, Charles Mingus, Sonny Rollins, Thelonious Monk, Herbie Nichols, Cecil Taylor and Albert Ayler, it’s not surprising that I was initially drawn to some of the more dangerous sounding musical encounters on discs 4-5 of the Shaw Mosaic Box; transitional music not unlike what one might have experienced in the mid-60s on some of those edgy, one-step-beyond, Andrew Hill Blue Note sessions, or a decade-and-change down the line at a Lower East Side watering hole with a daring genre-crossing musical profile such as The Tin Palace or that experimental hub of the SOHO loft jazz scene, Sam Rivers’ Studio Rivbea–still swinging, by all means, but with a looser, more combustible conversational approach to what constitutes a collective groove, a broader harmonic pallet less beholden to Tin Pan Alley and more self-consciously post-modern, while in terms of phrasing, employing a more overtly vocalized pallet of effects.
From 1965 are the remnants of two historical unreleased Blue Note sessions which label patriarch Alfred Lion later gifted to Shaw, and like some of those more experimental Andrew Hill sessions Lion so cherished, these also feature the great drummer Joe Chambers, as well as Joe Henderson on tenor, Ron Carter on bass and Larry Young not on organ, but on piano. On the cathartic Young original “Obsequious” they walk the line (well, actually, it occurs at a brisk gallop) between hard bop and free form with riveting spirit and purpose. On the other 1965 session, Carter and Young are supplanted by Paul Chambers and Herbie Hancock, for a much sunnier, in-the-pocket landscape; on Shaw’s “Three Muses” his left-of-center approach to harmony is readily accessible yet challenging in both his voice leading and in his jagged deconstruction of the melody–hornlike and serpentine in its complexity, yet always lyrically focused.
Fleshing out the remainder of discs 4-5 are a wonderful collaboration with drummer Eddie Moore and the much neglected alto sax master from Memphis, Frank Strozier, to particular effect on magnificent Shaw originals such as the rhapsodic “Little Red’s Fantasy” and the anthemic vamp and release of my personal favorite, “Tomorrow’s Destiny,” where the trumpeter’s gorgeous melodic focus and expansive, saxophone-like phrasing bring me back time and time again.
Then like some spiritual high five, is a visionary 1977 session in which Shaw pointedly reached out to the next generation of post-Dolphy avant gardists who had just hit town; representative of a new school of explorers…to some naysayers, of “questionable” bebop command (least ways, fresh out of the gate, the old school jazz cats didn’t readily embrace them, to put it politely).
But Shaw discerned a commonality of purpose, and in the person of saxophonists Arthur Blythe and Anthony Braxton, tethered to a dynamic, state-of-the-art rhythm section of pianist Muhal Richard Abrams, bassist Cecil McBee and drummers Joe Chambers or Victor Lewis, the band proved equally accommodating to old swing chestnuts like Fats Waller’s “Jitterbug Waltz” as well as the spirited psycho-drama of Eric Dolphy’s “Iron Man,” let alone on the more freely inflected performances.
And before you’ve even had a chance to catch your breath, here comes another Andrew Hill metaphor bobbing to the surface. In his video interview with Shaw’s son, Woody III, Braxton explains how much it meant to him when Woody chose to represent Andrew Hill’s “Symmetry” in their session, and if the pianist’s constructs elicit a deeply felt alto solo from Braxton, Woody just kills it–out there modulating for all he’s worth without a net in Sonny Rollins country; and it’s not just about the tongue tripping complexity of Shaw’s phrasing; those vaulting intervallic leaps worthy of the Nicholas Brothers; or how he peppers his lines with the kind of spicy Tandoori chromaticism that is so challenging to execute on the trumpet.
Nope, it’s about his tone and emotional commitment. And on the Shaw original “Song Of Songs” the trumpeter inspires his ensemble to sustain the kind of chanting intensity of Coltrane/Dolphy epiphanies “Ole” and “India,” let alone his own “Tomorrow’s Destiny” or some of Booker Little’s dark sonnets–a remarkably forward thinking session.
“The last 30 years, musicians are mining the breakthroughs of [Woody Shaw],” enthuses American tribal elder Anthony Braxton about his collaborator and spirit guide on The Iron Men, by way of an Amen Chorus. “He was the one to take that step into a Lydian-based/Pentatonic reality; his music would have an intervallic component that changed the gravities of the harmony.”
So as we pause to take leave of the trumpeter…and as you commence your own journey through Woody Shaw: The Complete Muse Recordings, let RADIO FREE CHIP commend you to the 1974 and 1987 sessions from discs 1 and 7 which bookend our ruminations, with reflections of his great working bands and such masterful long-time collaborators as trombonist Steve Turre, pianist Onaje Allan Gumbs and drummer Victor Lewis.
(And holy ghosts, such as Joe Henderson and Dexter Gordon and Booker Little and Freddie Hubbard and Max Roach and Clifford Brown)