Of the great trumpet innovators, Woody Shaw and Booker Little are the two most in danger of being forgotten. Little’s obscurity can be attributed to his early death at 23. Shaw’s case is more complicated. He died at 44, in 1989, after a difficult life. His period of peak creativity was brief, and came in the late 1970s, when the infrastructure supporting acoustic jazz was crumbling.
Shaw’s language incorporated pentatonic scale and fourth interval concepts associated with certain saxophonists (e.g., John Coltrane), not trumpet players. Those intervals, those fearless leaps, and their concomitant adrenaline rushes, are all over The Tour. It comes from a concert in Stuttgart, Germany, in 1976. Shaw plays with such sublime fury you wonder if he was having the night of his life. Apparently not. Producer Michael Cuscuna, a Shaw expert, has said he heard him “at least 200 nights on four different continents” and “never heard him play badly.”
From “The Moontrain” to “Obsequious” to “Ichi-Ban,” Shaw keeps topping himself. His blistering trajectories shoot off in multiple directions but he always connects them, to reveal underlying form. All six tracks are balls-to-the-wall burners. “Sun Bath” starts in a more relaxed backbeat groove but Shaw turns it nuclear. Even Bronislaw Kaper’s “Invitation,” normally lilting, is hardcore and relentless.
The band has three other killer players in their prime: drummer Louis Hayes, tenor saxophonist Junior Cook and pianist Ronnie Mathews. All match Shaw’s passion if not his degree-of-difficulty.
With historical releases, the package is critical. This one is not stellar. The sound quality is flat and harsh; Stafford James’ bass is too far forward in the mix. The liner notes by Shaw’s son Woody Shaw III are long on sincere repetitive reverence but short on useful information. Package be damned. Any new availability of Woody Shaw music is cause for celebration.