on October 12, 2016
Woody Shaw was a unique, inspired artist whose highly eclectic playing and writing remain a benchmark and, for the most part, an unmet challenge. I was a Miles Davis disciple - and a fledgling jazz trumpeter of 22 - when I first discovered Woody Shaw by watching one of his live club dates on PBS. From the moment he put the horn to his lips and breathed "Theme for Maxine" into it, I was his captive. I still am. Not unlike Sir Thomas Beecham after his first exposure to the music of Delius, it became my mission to track down as many of Woody's records and solos as possible - and make them my own (HA!). In spite of, because of, Woody's 1960s Avant Garde roots (his first record was with Eric Dolphy in 1963), his playing and writing radiate an intriguing-yet-accessible inner and outer "color." It can grab even the uninitiated - as I certainly was. So infatuated was I with that sonic "tang" that I actually started drinking Ginseng tea - simply because one of Woody's pieces is called "Ginseng People" (it's on the FOR SURE! album). Eventually, LITTLE RED'S FANTASY, HOMECOMING & SOPHISTICATED GIANT (both led by Dexter Gordon, the latter including Woody's tastiest version of his own "Moontrane"), the 5 Columbia albums in this boxed set, and the live NIGHT MUSIC became a kind of musical Bible for me.
It's common knowledge that Woody came to a very sorry end - and it wasn’t just due to “drugs.” Perhaps he was more vulnerable as a person than he should have been (who can accurately judge such a thing?), but in any case, the nastier qualities of the 1980s essentially hastened his demise. Not that the 1970s were some kind of Paradise Lost. In his Chicago Tribune column of June 18, 2002, Leonard Pitts nailed it when he wrote, "that era was sometimes self-conscious in its hipness [the lyrics to "Time Is Right," for instance!] and self-righteous in its rebellion [not that Woody was self-righteous OR rebellious]. For all that, there was something warm and real in those years that has not survived into these." The 1980s may have called for a leaner, more “digestible,” less idiosyncratic, and less “modal” style of playing than Woody’s. Still, he was, for the most part, brushed off by the Young Lion Movement of the early 1980s...Necessary as that movement was at the time, it had some serious limitations, which I think many in jazz can see, now. (It also didn't help that Woody was about 15 years too old for the "yunguns" of that time.)
This is not to blame Wynton Marsalis. To both Woody & Wynton’s credit, both men only had good things to say about each other – even when Columbia unceremoniously dropped Woody in favor of Wynton AND deleted Woody’s 5 albums from the catalogue. (No doubt, the "record recession" and the economic Recession of circa 1982 had a lot to do with this. I remember the situation around 1983-85: after Columbia's deletion ax fell, before the internet, and with myself being of quite limited funds AND not living in a major-metro area. That is, I really had to HUNT before I found all those albums. They were not "in print" for very long, and apparently not many were “pressed” to begin with. So, it was a red-letter day when I completed my quest by finding a cut-out copy of STEPPING STONES...Like stumbling across that Pearl of Great Price.) Now, of course, with this boxed set, all is restored, as it should be.
Don’t get me wrong: Wynton Marsalis is a master of his instrument, and an unceasingly great educational “role model” - he walks the walk that he talks - always HAS - and deserves great credit for restoring and recreating much of the Ellington catalogue of works. Nor is it a discredit to him that he didn't quite have Woody's fire and originality - WHO ELSE DID? But it was Woody’s misfortune that, as something of a late bloomer, he hit his true stride circa 1976 - only just before slick image projection and ”role model-ness” became more important than originality. Thank God that Woody had some time and commercial leeway to get down what was best in him - before the Freeze (The Big Chill?) hit - before mainstream jazz necessarily became a consciously "neo" thing.
I confess that I've never been overly partial to Woody's various "Concert Ensemble" arrangements and tracks. (Check out the 1975 Muse album BERLINER JAZZTAGE, as well as ROSEWOOD and WOODY III for these.) They are excellent, of course - think of a kind of "chamber" Gil Evans, with more "spice" - and one might agree with Michael Cuscuna that the WOODY I-III Suite is his masterpiece. (There are some almost unbearably poignant moments in "Woody III," Woody's tribute to his then-infant son...How Woody Shaw III must cherish this track, today ! Enough said.) Still, for THIS listener, Woody shines brightest on the small-group tracks. Standouts include the bittersweet "Theme for Maxine," the Dorian modal fire of "Seventh Avenue," the contemplative, chastening "All Things Being Equal Are Not" (which seems to radiate the very heart of what Leonard Pitts has mourned), and especially the quartet track "Organ Grinder" (an intriguing piece, and perhaps Woody's greatest and most deceptively concentrated solo, if I had to name just one). Not to mention the 1981 re-do of Woody's "Katrina Ballerina" (IMHO, far superior to the 1974 version on THE MOONTRANE). But you'll have your own favorites here, as soon as you snap up this Limited Edition (?) box.
There was indeed "something warm and real" which "did not survive" when the 1980s emerged out of the 1970s - politically AND musically. Before it could have been fully lived out, the great and idiosyncratic music of Woody Shaw was, for a time, eclipsed by preoccupation with other things. But it DOES survive, and in fact Woody's legacy is far from over. These sonic colors will never fade.