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Woody Shaw was a sparkling trumpeter whose clean lines and forthright attack shimmered with life and invention. Born in North Carolina in 1944, and raised in Newark, New Jersey, he hit his stride in the mid-1960s, just as acoustic modern jazz was about to wane.
Largely unknown outside jazz, Shaw, who died in 1989, remains a significant figure within. His compositions incorporated new elements into established forms and he is a key link in a bravura trumpet lineage that begins with Dizzy Gillespie and Clifford Brown and continues with the likes of Terence Blanchard today. But, perhaps most important, he was a wonderfully fluent improviser with a commanding grasp of the intricacies of modern jazz trumpet.
His small-label CDs were starting to move into collectors’ item territory but key recordings are now available on a new seven-CD box set, Woody Shaw: The Complete Muse Sessions. The set confirms just how fresh, relevant and life-affirming his music remains.
The set opens with 1974’s The Moontrane, Shaw’s first album fronting what he called his “concert ensemble”. In practice, this involved extra percussion and at least three horns in the front line. Shaw wrote the title track in 1963, a homage to the influence of John Coltrane. The CD notes recount that in the mid-1970s Shaw used to carry with him a dozen Coltrane albums and a portable record player on which to play them.
Shaw certainly pursued the same detailed study of harmonic theory and dedication to instrumental control as the celebrated saxophonist, and shared a taste for pianists with a driving attack and stark, rhythmical chords. But here the direct influence fades. Shaw’s oeuvre was the disciplined small-group modern jazz he had mastered as a sideman for both Blue Note records and the likes of drummers Max Roach and Art Blakey. The concert ensemble built on that experience, tweaking the form with funky riffs, fuller voicings and Latin beats.
The first three CDs feature various concert ensembles, including a live recording from the 1976 Berlin Jazz Festival, but the fourth and fifth present Shaw in classic quintet mode, starting with his first recording as a leader. Cassandranite was recorded for Blue Note in 1965 but label boss Alfred Lion sold his company before Shaw’s album was completed. Lion gave the tapes to Shaw, and it was only years later that they were released on Muse, revealing the 20-year-old Shaw’s sense of purpose and shape fully formed. The fifth CD ends with the looser, angular-themed The Iron Men session, recorded to celebrate Shaw’s tenure with multi-instrumentalist Eric Dolphy, who died in 1964.
In 1977, Shaw’s single-mindedness paid off when he was signed to Columbia records but he returned to Muse in 1983 to record three more albums. These present a relaxed and mature Shaw, imaginatively unpicking the standard repertoire and introducing future star saxophonist Kenny Garrett. The material is straight-ahead but despite deteriorating health – he had a degenerative eye disease – Shaw’s playing is as vibrant as ever. In February 1989, he lost an arm when he was struck by a subway train. He died six months later.
Shaw’s Columbia recordings have been available in box set form in the US for several years but are now available in the UK. Shaw’s six-CD Columbia set opens with a rather strait-laced “concert ensemble” but the centrepiece, a terrific session at the Village Vanguard in 1978, is among his best recorded work.
Shaw also played on another classic Village Vanguard session, Dexter Gordon’s Homecoming (1976). The album marked the saxophonist’s return to the US – he had been working in Europe since 1962 – and a late career boost that led to more albums and, eventually, the lead role in the 1986 film Round Midnight. Gordon’s six-CD Columbia set captures him in languorous, magisterial and muscular form.
At this point, jazz fusion ruled the roost and Wayne Shorter led the way. Even today, the four albums the saxophonist recorded for Columbia between 1974 and 1988, with their bleak harmonies, strippedback rhythms and melodies tipped with menace, have a futuristic quality. With two bonus CDs adding all of Shorter’s compositions for Weather Report, this set comes highly recommended.
By the turn of the century, the pendulum had swung back to acoustic jazz, and Shorter was applying his pared-down aesthetic in a classic quartet. Lead figure in the change was trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, whose turn of the century recordings are now packaged as Swinging Into the 21st. The 11 CDs range from grand-scale opera to classic jazz updates but among the best is another live recording from New York’s Village Vanguard. And here, the imprint of Marsalis’s mentor, Woody Shaw, is palpable.
Wynton Marsalis Quintet plays Ronnie Scott’s, London, from Monday to Wednesday, www.ronniescotts.co.uk