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December 1997

Woody Shaw
Bemsha Swing
Blue Note Records

For fans of Woody Shaw, Bemsha Swing is manna from heaven. This two-disc set of cleanly recorded '86 Detroit club performances with pianist Geri Allen, bassist Robert Hurst, and drummer Roy Brooks, establishes that while the trumpeter's career was declining, and his life tragically unraveling, his creative abilities were still, at least occasionally, at the level of his high-profile '70s zenith.

The collection contains strong readings of compositions Shaw recorded during his fruitful association with Columbia. He simply nails "Ginseng People," a treacherously paced Shaw original, building an exciting solo that repeatedly peaks on incisively declaimed, yet elegantly shaped phrases. Shaw's wonderful ability to blend sheer power with tender lyricism is very much in evidence on his "In A Capricornian Way," a waltz that alternately sways and surges, and his gift in mixing serpentine lines with jabbing phrases is upfront on his rendering of Wayne Shorter's "United."

Given the hit-and-run nature of traveling as a single, it is not surprising that the collection includes a substantial portion of standard repertoire. Luckily, given Allen's penchant for Monk, the set includes exceptional takes on "Nutty," "Well You Needn't" and the title piece. In lesser hands, Shaw's brand of explosive virtuosity could be a liability in interpreting Monk; however, without any shortage of fireworks, Shaw consistently constructs cogent thematically driven solos. Additionally, an almost ebullient "Star Eyes" is included.

While the presence of two serviceable trio performances-Allen's "Eric," a tribute to Dolphy, and Brooks' allusive "Theloniously Speaking"-suggests that Shaw was by then unable to produce two hours of issuable material over the course of at least two nights, the great trumpeter's legacy is well-served by Bemsha Swing.

Originally published in December 1997
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