Woody Shaw Takes on “ ’Round Midnight,” the Trumpeter’s Supreme Challenge

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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.

The crucial tension in modern jazz is the one between sound and sense—between, on the one hand, harmonic structures that approach the breaking point of atonality and, on the other, the jettisoning of them altogether in favor of melodic (or non-melodic) impulses and extremes of sonic and textural experience. Shaw, who died in 1989, was poised at the boundary of this conflict. Though, as in “The Tour: Volume Two,” he performed many Great American Songbook standards and bebop classics, he infused them with a rhythmically asymmetrical freedom and a torrential imagination that launched phrases of a high-relief density that also reveal the composition’s hidden intricacies. He was a classicist with no nostalgia or academicism; he saw the forms of post-bebop jazz as vital because he transformed and extended them, made them the springboards of new and unexpected jolts of musical imagination.

The first track of “The Tour: Volume Two,” is the Jerome Kern song “All the Things You Are,” long associated with Charlie Parker (the introduction of the theme is a direct Parker quote). Shaw starts his extended solo lyrically and tints it with exotic harmonic colors before taking off into stratospheric profusions of notes too fast and too many to count, phrases that dart and dip up and down with a sharp sculptural spontaneity. In the bop anthem “A Night in Tunisia,” another Parker specialty, Shaw trims the music down, punctuating the rapid silence of the famous four-bar break with a puckish and perfectly placed handful of notes that leap out in unexpected directions. (Throughout the disk, Shaw’s key counterpart is the pianist Ronnie Mathews, with his whirlwind sense of sudden velocity.)

In this clip, Shaw takes on what is perhaps the supreme challenge for a trumpeter: “ ’Round Midnight,” which was composed by the pianist Thelonious Monk but raised to its apotheosis by the trumpeter Miles Davis, whose performance of it, at the age of twenty-nine, at the 1955 Newport Jazz Festival definitively relaunched his career and heralded his enduring new style. It takes nerve for a jazz trumpeter to take it on, and the thirty-one-year-old Shaw rises to the challenge. He doesn’t attempt to match Davis’s gaunt yet monumental spareness. Shaw’s statement of the theme already packs a few quiet surprises, and he quickly builds his solo to a brashly florid intensity, setting off lyrical phrases with a percussive attack and building dramatically, as if line by line, to explosive, keening, expressionistic outbursts of a seemingly self-surpassing urgency.

P.S. The first volume of “The Tour,” from 2016, is also terrific, but different—it’s a recording of a single concert, and, though it offers fewer soloistic high points from Shaw, it’s an inspiring display of a band kicking up a fine rhythmic fury.