Woody Shaw was the last of the statement trumpeters. Deeply influenced by Freddie Hubbard's blistering attack on the instrument, Shaw began his recording career in 1963 during a highly charged and transitional period in this country. His compositions, arrangements and playing style were highly personal and mirrored the frustration that many jazz artists felt given the slow pace of civil rights, a government determined to wage an unpopular war and an art form that no longer held the same status it did just five years earlier.
Hard bop had been around for about 10 years by 1963 but was somewhat adrift—eclipsed by freer forms of jazz expressed by John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Eric Dolphy, Charles Mingus, Miles Davis and Chicago's avant-garde artists. And given the soaring popularity of British rock bands, folk artists, Motown and other forms aimed at teens with portable phonographs, jazz as an art form was being bested by musicians with a fraction of their skills but championed by an industry hot on the scent of profits.
As the '60s turned into the '70s, jazz began to panic. The imaginations and libidos of millions of college age teens were being stirred by soul, rock, disco and punk—leaving jazz musicians scrambling. Older jazz audiences didn't want to hear anything new and while most younger listeners found new forms of jazz exciting, they also found it tedious and relentlessly gloomy.
Some jazz musicians tried to appeal to the youth culture by embracing jazz-rock fusion while others moved toward the orchestral soul-jazz movement spearheaded by CTI Records. As the two camps divided, Woody Shaw was in the middle—retaining the spirit of hard bop but moving the jazz trumpet toward a hotter, more expressive, conversational place.
If you listen carefully to Shaw's playing in the '70s, you can hear a political statement about decaying times and the unwinding social fabric and despair over jazz's diminished worthiness and dissolving future. On Shaw'sThe Moontrane, Joe Bonner's Love Dance and Larry Young's Obsequious, you hear Shaw's energy and anxiety, ambition and struggle.
Shaw's creative journey through the '70s and '80s can be heard on the new Woody Shaw: The Complete Muse Sessions (Mosaic). Shaw began to record for Muse in 1974, just as rock, soul and disco began to command a powerful place in the music business. Jazz was too heady for most kids who had just started dating, owned stereo systems, had cassette decks in car glove compartments and were in search of a good time. To Shaw's credit, he remained a jazz purist throughout his Muse years (up until 1987)—using his horn as if delivering a fiery sermon.
What's also fascinating about Shaw's playing on his nine Muse albums is that it can be brutish and conversational without ever being harsh or didactic. His blowing during this period was as novelistic as it was insistent. The albums here also show Shaw attempting to take jazz and the jazz trumpet to new places.
As Woody Shaw III's liner notes to the set point out, his father's music can be grouped into three different periods: The Moontrane (1974), Love Dance (1975) and The Woody Shaw Concert Ensemble Live at the Berliner Jazztage (1976), featuring an orchestral frame for Shaw's trumpet; Cassandranite (1965), Little Red's Fantasy (1976) and The Iron Men (1977) feature a quintet; and Setting Standards (1985), Solid (1986) and Imagination (1987) showcase Shaw playing standards following years with Columbia Records.
Of the groupings, I favor the quintet dates. While The Moontrane certainly establishes Shaw as a brilliant composer and player, Little Red's Fantasy remains my favorite. There's a mood and energy on the album that is pure poetry.
By the '80s, jazz was returning to its acoustic roots after an extended dalliance with psychedelic rock, and Muse looked to cash in on Shaw's standards albums. This detour isn't detrimental. Quite the contrary, since Shaw's shift gives us an opportunity to hear his phrasing and intonation on familiar material.
If there's a story arc in this Shaw box, it's Shaw trying to break artistic ground while fighting off trends undoing the music. It's the story of how a young artist developed a style despite internal and external pressures to jump ship and how he advanced jazz in the process.
What we hear on the Muse box is Shaw as the last artist standing, fighting to hatch a new jazz style against all odds. Though jazz would soon go smooth and repertory with the advent of the CD and concert orchestra, Shaw remained the last jazz patriot—wholly convinced that there was still more to say. Shaw died in 1989 at age 44 of kidney failure. He's sorely missed, and one can only imagine the exciting contribution he would be making today had he lived.
JazzWax tracks: You'll find Woody Shaw: The Complete Muse Sessions (Mosaic), a seven-disc box set, here.
JazzWax note: For more on Shaw, visit the Woody Shaw Facebook Page here hosted by Woody Shaw III, the trumpeter's son.
JazzWax clip: Here's one of my favorite tracks—Little Red's Fantasy, from the Mosaic box set. Listen carefully and you'll hear shades of Stevie Wonder...