The Complete Muse Sessions
The past couple of years have seen the late, great trumpeter Woody Shaw belatedly receive more well-deserved recognition. Last year Sony Legacy brought out The Complete Woody Shaw Columbia Albums Collection, a six-CD box set of his 1977-1981 run with that iconic label. Now comes Mosaic’s seven-disc set of comparably top-notch Shaw albums on the smaller (and now defunct) Muse Records in the years bracketing his Columbia experience.
Twenty-nine-year-old Shaw had already made a name for himself by the time he got to Muse in 1974, via sideman work with Eric Dolphy, Horace Silver, Art Blakey and others, and a couple of albums as a leader. By the mid-’70s, mainstream jazz was suffering through tough times, but you wouldn’t know that from Shaw’s work on Muse. His first two albums there are blistering studio efforts, The Moontrane (whose title tune Shaw composed as a teenager for his idol John Coltrane) and Love Dance. “Obsequious,” a fiery Shaw signature piece written by his old Newark running buddy Larry Young, got its initial release on Love Dance, which features a nine-piece ensemble fleshed out with two saxes (Billy Harper, Rene McLean), trombone (Steve Turre), congas (Tony Waters) and percussion (Guilherme Franco). The same tune is also a highlight of Shaw’s third Muse album, The Woody Shaw Concert Ensemble Live at the Berliner Jazztage, with Shaw and trombonist Slide Hampton giving exuberant chase to each other (and saxophonists McLean and Frank Foster doing likewise). Another studio album, Little Red’s Fantasy, follows, its title track a tribute to Maxine Gregg (the mother of Shaw’s son, Woody Shaw III, and future wife of Dexter Gordon). Pianist Ronnie Mathews’ pretty waltz “Jean Marie” is heard both here and on the live album.
The next couple of Muse albums straddled the past and future. In the Beginning was actually recorded for Blue Note in 1965, with a shifting cast of forward-looking sidemen including Joe Henderson, Larry Young, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, Paul Chambers and Joe Chambers. Alfred Lion returned the tapes to Shaw after selling the label, and Muse released the album in 1983. Its most intriguing track is “Cassandranite,” a Dolphy-flavored Shaw composition that reveals him as a major trumpet innovator with impeccable, classically bred technique and a clarion tone. The Iron Men, recorded in 1977 and released in 1981, also references Dolphy: Shaw recorded two of its tunes, the Dolphy-penned “Iron Man” and Fats Waller’s “Jitterbug Waltz,” with his old boss. On his own The Iron Men, Shaw is joined by Anthony Braxton, Arthur Blythe, Muhal Richard Abrams, Cecil McBee and Victor Lewis. Shaw’s “Song of Songs” and Andrew Hill’s “Symmetry” round out the album, along with two trio pieces for Shaw, Abrams and McBee. Braxton, in Woody Shaw III’s comprehensive notes, recalls his delight at the choice of “Symmetry” for the album, adding, “If Woody Shaw would have said, ‘Let’s play “Pop Goes the Weasel,’” I would have said, ‘Yes sir!’”
The observation seems less far-fetched when Shaw turns novelty tunes into art on “Spiderman Blues” and “The Woody Woodpecker Song.” The former turns up on Setting Standards, a 1983 quartet session with Cedar Walton, Buster Williams and Victor Jones. “Woodpecker” is on Solid, named for a covered Sonny Rollins blues and whose supporting cast included Kennys Garrett and Barron. Two particular gems on the final Muse album, Imagination—recorded in 1987, two years before Shaw’s tragic early death—are Bobby Timmons’ “Dat Dere” and a “Stormy Weather” featuring Turre’s earthy muted trombone.
But there is nothing but exemplary music to be found here throughout. “The last 30 years, musicians are mining the breakthroughs of your father, sir,” Braxton tells Woody Shaw III in his notes. “They don’t talk about it and in some cases they don’t even know that that’s where it came from.” Maybe this Mosaic set will help clarify that for some of them.