Woody Shaw Takes on “ ’Round Midnight,” the Trumpeter’s Supreme Challenge
It ’s always terrific news when great music that has been hidden in the vaults is brought to light, but the excellent new release “The Tour: Volume Two,” featuring live European performances from 1976 and 1977 by the crucial modern trumpeter Woody Shaw, is shadowed by sadness: the label that released it, HighNote, lost its founder, Joe Fields, last month. Fields, who was eighty-eight, had been, for half a century, an important producer of modern jazz recordings. One of his labels, Muse, gave birth to many of Shaw’s best albums, starting with “The Moontrane,” from 1974, and also went back and released a wonderful, previously unissued session from 1965, “Cassandranite,” Shaw’s first date as a leader, recorded when he was twenty-one.
When Shaw made his first recording, as an unknown eighteen-year-old, in 1963, while a sideman with Eric Dolphy’s band, some listeners speculated that the name was a pseudonym for the trumpet hero Freddie Hubbard (and perhaps a ruse to get around contractual obligations). It was no such thing, and I confess that, though I’m a fan of Hubbard, I’d never have mistaken one for the other. Shaw’s tone is broader and grainier; his harmonic world is twistier. Shaw worked as a sideman for many of the great musicians of the time, including his longtime friend Larry Young (I wrote last year about some of their collaborations), Art Blakey, and Dexter Gordon; he also led his own bands, which included some of the younger great modernists, including Anthony Braxton, Billy Harper, Geri Allen, and Arthur Blythe. For the quintets of “The Tour,” Shaw was also officially a sideman—the group was nominally led by Louis Hayes (one of the most prominent modern drummers, who, happily, still records for HighNote), but Shaw is its dominant musical personality, and his improvisations shift the music from the delightful to the sublime.