Become a member and get exclusive access to articles, live sessions and more!
Start Your Free Trial

Chronology: The Partnership of Larry Young and Woody Shaw

A look back at the duo from Newark, New Jersey

L to R: Nathan Davis, Larry Young, Woody Shaw, and Billy Brooks in the mid-’60s. Photo: Jean-Pierre Leloir (Courtesy of Resonance Records)
L to R: Nathan Davis, Larry Young, Woody Shaw, and Billy Brooks in the mid-’60s. Photo: Jean-Pierre Leloir (Courtesy of Resonance Records)

In the wake of Jimmy Smith’s breakout success, the Hammond B-3 roster circa 1960 included Jack McDuff, Jimmy McGriff, Don Patterson, Baby Face Willette, Freddie Roach, and Shirley Scott. Because these keyboard artists were important to the working-class Black community, making music steeped in the blues and suitable for dancing, their monumental contribution to American culture was often dismissed as “grits ’n’ gravy” and remains somewhat ignored in the jazz history textbooks.

A native of Newark, New Jersey, Larry Young started his career aligned with the Smith aesthetic but soon took the organ into the contemporary modal territory mapped out by John Coltrane and McCoy Tyner. A special synergy occurred when he started mentoring a slightly younger trumpet player from his hometown, Woody Shaw. 

“Larry Young was one of the rare geniuses of music,” Shaw said in 1980. “We used to play tunes like ‘Giant Steps’ … Larry was the first person I heard play the pentatonic scale.” Shaw recorded with Eric Dolphy when the trumpeter was only 19; it’s unthinkable that he would have been ready for that gig if he hadn’t been informally studying with Young.

Shaw learned from Young, but Young also learned from Shaw. Three releases from 1964 and 1965 document this fruitful partnership. The key disc is the November 1965 LP for Blue Note, Unity. It’s Young’s date, but three innovative Shaw originals are front and center. In the liner notes, Young explains that the album is called Unity because “[a]lthough everybody on the date is very much an individualist, they were all in the same frame of mind.” 

That frame of mind included a desire to use the whole history of music, to go backward and forward as much as possible. The title of one Shaw piece sums it up: “Beyond All Limits.” Unity begins with the rampant multiculturalism of another Shaw tune, “Zoltan,” which includes a theme from the Hungarian composer Zoltan Kodály (and expands on his pentatonic use of the Lydian scale) as Elvin Jones alternates between marching-band cadence and fierce Afro-Cuban drive. Joe Henderson’s blues “If” gives us an abstracted taste of “grits ’n’ gravy,” “Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise” is from the grand American songbag, Coltrane gets a deliberate namecheck in Shaw’s “The Moontrane,” and “Monk’s Dream” is an homage to another founding father. 

Young covers the bass parts with his left hand. The intervallic structures in his right are closer to guitar than piano voicings, giving this heavy modal jazz a charismatic and distinctive cast. All four musicians are in top form; the result is one of the greatest LPs of all time.  

In 2016 Resonance Records released Larry Young in Paris: The ORTF Recordings, a selection of archived material tracked in a French radio studio, mostly in late ’64. Shaw was working in Paris with saxophonist Nathan Davis and sent for his Newark buddies Larry Young and drummer Billy Brooks. While Davis and Brooks are less familiar figures, they have the measure of the music’s muscular requirements. That’s a good thing, for it’s just a year before Unity, and Shaw and Young are well on their way. 

The ORTF sessions have a lived-in confidence that must be informed by the jam sessions Young and Shaw played back home. Brooks, drummer Eddie Gladden, and saxophonists Tyrone Washington and Herbie Morgan (all heard on later Young albums) were part of that scene too. The deluxe Resonance booklet discusses Olga Von Till, the pianist/teacher who taught both Larry Young and Bill Evans. Incredibly, Till studied with Kodály’s close associate Béla Bartók in Budapest, which means we can draw a straight line from Shaw’s “Zoltan” to Kodály himself. Yeah, Newark was fertile ground!

Just a month after Unity, Shaw returned as a leader—with Young and Joe Henderson—to Rudy Van Gelder’s studio under the auspices of Alfred Lion. The sessions never came out on Blue Note, but appeared much later on Muse as In the Beginning. Producer Michael Cuscuna told me, “Alfred gave the tapes back to Woody when Blue Note was about to be sold to Liberty Records. Woody told me about the tapes, and we finally sold them to Joe Fields in the late ’70s after Woody had signed with Columbia.” 

In the Beginning is worth hearing just for the wonderful way Shaw and Henderson phrase the oblique melodies. The first side includes one of Young’s best tunes, “Obsequious,” on which he plays rather abstract acoustic piano. On the second side, Young yields his chair to Herbie Hancock, whose inspired comping gooses a flawless rendition of Henderson’s “Tetragon.” It’s possible that Shaw’s career would have had a different trajectory if this excellent music had come out in a timely fashion.

Unity remains beloved and influential. The other ’64/’65 recordings fill in some gaps, making Unity less of a bolt from the blue. Classic jazz usually had roots in a community, and in this case Newark deserves serious credit.

Further Listening

  • Chick Corea: Tones for Joan’s Bones (Atlantic, 1968)—You can hear the pentatonic Lydian style flower further in Corea’s first record with Shaw and Joe Farrell, recorded exactly one year after Unity.
  • Stanley Cowell: Brilliant Circles (Freedom, 1972)—Another pianist paying attention to the new language was Cowell, whose stunning ’69 session includes Shaw and under-recorded Newark saxophonist Tyrone Washington. The latter’s “Earthly Heavens” is one of a kind.
  • The Tony Williams Lifetime: Emergency! (Polydor, 1969)—Young began his career playing in bluesy organ trios with guitar and drums. A decade later he helped usher in the fusion revolution with Williams and John McLaughlin.

Ethan Iverson

Ethan Iverson

Ethan Iverson has been writing about jazz for 15 years, mostly on his blog Do the Math. While he was the founding pianist of the Bad Plus, these days Iverson performs in a duo with Mark Turner and in Billy Hart’s quartet, has a longstanding relationship with Mark Morris, and teaches at the New England Conservatory of Music.