Ezz-thetics

a column by
Stuart Broomer

There might be an unknown algorithm of attention, a set of circumstances or principles that determine times are propitious for something ignored or out of sight suddenly to demand attention. Something akin to that might be at work in the case of Woody Shaw’s music, which seems to be suddenly blossoming forth again in contrast to the relative neglect which it has often suffered. Factors include the continuing dedication of Shaw’s son, Woody Louis Armstrong Shaw III, and Shaw’s original producer, Michael Cuscuna, the two people responsible for recent reissues, but the attention might be reinforced by an emerging generation of trumpeters – Ambrose Akinmusire, Peter Evans, Jonathan Finlayson – who share interests in complex forms and a particularly fluid line that might be traced to Shaw’s influence.

In 2011 Sony began releasing a series of Complete Album Collections of some of their most significant jazz artists, among them perennial reissue subjects Charles Mingus and Thelonious Monk and popular (perhaps even “pop”) acts Weather Report and Return to Forever. Secreted among them was a much less prominent body of work, trumpeter Woody Shaw’s Complete Columbia Album Collection, covering Shaw’s recordings from 1977 to 1981 and adding previously released and unreleased live material to The Complete CBS Studio Recordings of Woody Shaw released by Mosaic in 1992. Mosaic has now issued Shaw’s Complete Muse Recordings, meaning more of Shaw’s work is currently (and conveniently) available than at any previous time.

What’s most striking about listening to the Muse recordings – sometimes for the first time in decades for this listener, sometimes for the first time – is the sheer coherence of Shaw’s work, its integrity and vitality, and its fidelity to a living tradition that has at times been overshadowed or even under assault, whether by fusion’s dominance of the jazz marketplace or a narrower definition of tradition.

The Muse recordings bracket the Columbia years. He first recorded for Muse from 1974 to 1977 and then from 1983 to 1987. His work had both multiple dimensions and multiple beginnings since first recording as an 18-year old in 1963 with Eric Dolphy on the latter’s Iron Man sessions, and his first session as leader for Blue Note in 1965 – around the time of his 21st birthday. It wasn’t released until Muse issued it in 1983 as Cassandranite, so it turns up here among the Muse recordings. It’s a remarkable debut, very much part of the Blue Note post-bop style that was then emerging. Shaw fits in comfortably with stellar sidemen, including Joe Henderson on tenor saxophone, Joe Chambers on drums, Larry Young or Herbie Hancock on piano and Ron Carter or Paul Chambers on bass. Shaw then spent the mid- to late-‘60s playing and recording with a host of musicians that covered the spectrum of modern jazz, notably Young, Horace Silver and Andrew Hill.

Shaw eventually recorded a debut as leader that would be released, the brilliant two-LP Blackstone Legacy, recorded for Contemporary in 1970. That and its sequel Song of Songs are his only major studio sessions as leader to be missing from the Muse and Columbia sets. Clearly Woody Shaw was a musician whose sense of jazz could comfortably stretch from hard bop godfathers like Silver and Blakey to certain aspects of the avant-garde, Eric Dolphy prominent among his influences and his developing sense of line, alive with coiling chromatics and sudden leaps. Just a few years younger, he belonged in spirit and sources, to that extraordinary group of trumpeters born in a hundred-day span in 1938 – Booker Little, Freddie Hubbard and Lee Morgan – and his vision would extend further into the same complexities of line and harmonic language that each pursued at different points in his career. It’s a musical vision that Shaw ultimately realizes here.

While jazz in the ‘70s rapidly broke down into camps ranging from commercial fusion to hard-core free jazz, Shaw persisted in developing an art that was largely defined in the mid-‘60s, becoming the standard-bearer of a disciplined expression that balanced composed and improvised elements and that extended the languages by musicians like Coltrane and Dolphy. His first recordings for Muse demonstrate how far he would extend that legacy, beginning with The Moontrane in 1974. Including compositions by several band members (pianist Onaje Allan Gumbs, trombonist Steve Turre and saxophonist Azar Lawrence) as well as Shaw, it’s intense, energized music that expands from a sextet to an octet with additional percussionists.

While the economics of jazz ran strongly counter to Shaw’s ambitions, he and his supporters at Muse, Joe Fields and Cuscuna, emphasized the expanded groups that gave full range to Shaw’s vision, creating harmonically dense, polyrhythmic music that supported diverse improvisational approaches. The bands of Moontrane, the nonet of Love Dance (1975) and the seven-member version of Shaw’s Concert Ensemble that recorded Live at the Berlin Jazztage (1976) could accommodate the raw fire of Lawrence or alto saxophonist Rene McLean, the considered heat of saxophonist Billy Harper, or the thoughtful swing of trombonist Slide Hampton or tenor saxophonist Frank Foster.

Shaw’s on-going interest in developing his material is evident in the inclusion of Larry Young’s tune “Obsequious” which first appears on the 1965 Blue Note quintet sessions, then reappears with expanded voicings in the Berlin concert. The Concert Ensemble develops a rhythmic density far beyond what one might expect, with all of the horn players – Shaw, McLean, Hampton and Foster – supplementing Louis Hayes’ vigorous drumming with small percussion instruments. The effect is most dramatic on McLean’s “Bilad As Sudan (Land of the Blacks).”

Shaw’s range is never more apparent than on two sessions with smaller groups, one from 1976 that produced the LP Little Red’s Fantasy, the other from 1977 that produced Iron Men. The former is a relatively straight-ahead session. The intensely boppish Frank Strozier on alto and Ronnie Matthews on piano (also in the Berlin band, he contributes the pretty and Tyner-esque “Jean Marie” to both sessions) execute the music with aplomb, including the dissonant, almost conversational lines of Shaw’s “Tomorrow’s Destiny.”

The Iron Men goes in a different direction, to the beginning of Shaw’s recording career and to its more radical inferences. A tribute to Eric Dolphy, the session includes two tunes from the Douglas sessions (Dolphy’s own “Iron Man” and Fats Waller’s “Jitterbug Waltz”) as well as Andrew Hill’s “Symmetry” and three Shaw compositions. The group permutates from a trio to two quintets to a sextet and includes Anthony Braxton and Arthur Blythe on reeds, pianist Muhal Richard Abrams, bassist Cecil McBee and drummer Joe Chambers, a kind of avant-all-star band.

There are two brief and beautiful chamber-like pieces – “Diversions One” and “Two” – with Shaw on flugelhorn, and Abrams and McBee, and equally thoughtful approaches to the other material. Blythe plays alto in a quintet version of “Iron Man,” Braxton plays alto on “Symmetry,” Shaw fitting perfectly with the emotive heat of the former and the coiling, rapid-fire probes of the latter. Shaw and Braxton play cornet and clarinet on “Jitterbug Waltz,” an intriguing period sonority, with McBee contributing an unusual up-date of slap bass (McBee is brilliant both here and on one of The Moontrane sessions). Shaw’s “Song of Songs,” with both Blythe and Braxton, has a mad spirit of collective improvisation, with Braxton’s chirping sopranino darting around Blythe’s alto and Shaw’s trumpet, making the most of the tune’s liberating modal underpinnings.

There follows a chronological gap – the Columbia years and then some – of six years. When Shaw returned to Muse he no longer pursued the exploratory paths of Blackstone Legacy or The Iron Men, or the large ensemble compositions of the Columbia years. He recorded three LPs for Muse between late 1983 and mid-‘87, leading bands from quartet to sextet devoted almost exclusively to standards: the first session has a Shaw original that crushes the “Spiderman” theme-song into a blues and a Cedar Walton ballad, “When Love Is New,” so beautiful that it could pass for a standard; the next session has another Shaw tune among the standards; for the final session, Steve Turre contributed “Steve’s Blues,” the final tune in the set.

The 1983 LP Setting Standards is almost unbelievably good. It’s the simplest of formats, Shaw and a rhythm section playing ballads, up-tempo chestnuts and blues, but he does so with a level of invention, fluency and command that literally set standards for trumpet fluency. Ignoring the historical gap, Shaw achieves the quality and authority of some of Coltrane’s Prestige recordings, contrasting his instrument’s brassiness with complex, understated phrases almost impossible on the flugelhorn or trumpet.

He plays just as well on the two succeeding sessions, Solid (1986) with a young Kenny Garrett turning up on alto saxophone on a couple of tunes and playing with an inventiveness that almost matches Shaw’s own, and the final Imagination (1987) with Steve Turre creating a pure brass front line. Mixing up jazz tunes like Sonny Rollins’ “Solid” and Bobby Timmons’ “Dat Dere” with standards “Imagination” and “Stormy Weather,” Shaw plays with a consummate skill and creative drive that put these sessions on a par with comparable explorations by a vintage Miles Davis band or a particularly lyrical version of the Messengers, all of it fuelled by terrific accompanists, among them pianists Cedar Walton, Kenny Barron and Kirk Lightsey, bassists Buster Williams, Neil Swainson and Ray Drummond, and drummers Victor Jones and Carl Allen.

But it‘s Shaw who dominates here. Even as a musician facing diminishing returns in terms of economics and audience, he’s pursuing the vision of line and harmony that had propelled his work for some twenty years, reaching heights as an improviser equal to or beyond anything he had achieved before, extending the dynamic history of jazz. Shaw may have been fighting a rear-guard action, but he was doing so with a time-transcending brilliance.

The accompanying text by Woody Shaw III is very well done, incorporating extensive recent reflections provided by Stafford James, Billy Harper and Anthony Braxton. Between Shaw and Michael Cuscuna, the set has clearly been produced with genuine familiarity and affection as well as authority. Having effectively documented Woody Shaw’s work during his lifetime, Cuscuna has again done much to make that work available.

Stuart Broomer©2013

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