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Friday, October 15, 2010

Woody Shaw: The Intimidator

by Steve Lake
Melody Maker magazine, October 2, 1976, p. 48

"When I was coming up, I used to say, 'I'll get my hit record and then I'll be able to do what I want to do after that." But that doesn't happen... the more money you get, the more you want. I mean, how much money are you supposed to have?

"And in the meantime what happens to all the knowledge you've acquired in your musical lifetime? You mean I'm supposed to take all that and just throw it away for some money? Uh-uh. Can't do that . A lot of the cats have got contracts. The managers want 'em to play this and play that. F--- it! I'd dig to make some money too, but I can't do it that way."

Woody Shaw has been watching the big jazz rock sell-out go down. And he has not been amused.

"Miles is not happening. Chick Corea...Chick Corea makes me cry, man. I really thought he was going to be one of the cats. Freddie Hubbard ain't playing. This was a guy I used to look up to as a god.

"See man, they take the music and they use it for their own advantages, they f--- up the music and then they say there's nuthin' happenin'.

"It's the f------ musicians, man, who've made jazz the way it is, They get their commercial s--- together, make a lot of money, and then they say, 'oh, man. ain't nobody swinging.' Well, that's bulls---.

"I've sorta taken on the role of The intimidator in jazz circles, not so much out of choice, but because somebody's gotta do it. I don't mind these guys makin' money, but when they're supposed to be playing it's a different story.

"I like to see that those guys don't sleep too easy at nights. I got at freddie Hubbard's ass recently, I said 'Man, when are you gonna start playin' somethin', man? As great a trumpet player as you are, you ain't playin' s---.'

"And he didn't say a word... hahahahahaha... he didn't say one word."

Woody Shaw didn't look much like The Intimidator. A slight, long limbed man in his early thirties with a permanent deep crease in his brow, he looked deceptively mild.

Until, that is, one examined his right hand, where most of the skin was ripped from the knuckles, the result of a "disagreement" with his former colleague, tenorist Junior Cook the night before.

I tried to picture Woody trading right hooks with the burly Cook, but the imagination revolted.

Woody, you see, suffers from an eye disease called retinitis pigmatosa. it's a form of night blindness. In the absence of daylight he becomes partially sighted, and inside a night club as scene-settingly murky as Ronny Scott's, London, can distinguish nothing at all.

But we're going too fast here. A formal introduction is required.

Woody Shaw is the finest trumpeter in cooking, hip, mainstream jazz. And, like Charles Tolliver, who is perhaps his only rival in this area, Shaw's ideas look beyond his preferred idiom and take in some of the lessons of the New Thing.

Woody Shaw has big ears. He's heard all there is to hear and played most of it. He has his musical prejudices, of course, but then who hasn't?

Born in Laurinburg, North Carolina, on Christmas Eve, 1944, he began his musical career at age 11 in Newark, New Jersey and before turning 20, had gigged with Bud Powell, Larry Young, Johnny Coles, Lou Donaldson, and most important of all, Eric Dolphy.

In fact. Woody's first ever record date was on Dolphy's Iron Man, recently reissued as part of a double album package called Jitterbug Waltz on the Douglas label.

Shaw gigged with a Dolphy band that included Bobby Hutcherson and J. C. Moses, and a year later got a call to join Eric's band in Europe. It sounded like a good deal. hut, on arriving in Paris, Woody was greeted with the news that Dolphy had just died in Berlin.

But being "an ambitious young man who couldn't speak a word of French," Woody decided to stick around and spent a vear finding his feet in the clubs of Paris, most notably the celebrated Chat Qui Peche, and when Horace Silver called him up for a gig back in the Big Apple, he was ready to handle it.

"After Dolphy, working with Horace was like the most thorough grounding a young can could have in the basics of jazz, and when I left to freelance around New York, with McCoy Tyner, Art (Blakey), Chick Corea—just about everybody, in fact—my style had really blossomed.

"But I worked in so many different bags that the critics never knew where I was coming from. They'd say, where is this cat, never able to put their finger on me. What direction does he play out of?

"Well, I play out of all directions. Exactly what's wrong with most young musicians today is that they can all do, like, just the one thing.

"They don't have a broad enough experience. It ain't Their fault. There's no jazz jam sessions, anymore. I'm not talking about the free thing; that's there, but it's not enough.

McCoy Tyner was a big influence on Woody, both personally and musically. At that point, the musicians in the Tyner lineup referred to themselves euphemistically as the McCoy Tyner Starvation Band. Although every pianist in New York City was playing like McCoy, the man himself could not get a gig hardly.

He had a big critical reputation but that didn't help him get work. In fact, when I played with him, he was driving a taxi. But I never knew him get depressed or really brought down.

"He used to tell me, "Don't worry. Everything is gonna be all right." And I guess it is, finally! He's a very beautiful and wise man. I try to use him as my model. Anytime I got a problem, McCoy's the guy I call up, and he always cools me out.

Watching the Woody Shaw/Louis Hayes group at work during their recent residency at Ronnie Scott's, it was stimulating to follow the proliferation of ideas flowing from Shaw's trumpet.

His tone is a minor miracle. Broad, beautifully matured on the ballads and crisply brilliant on the up-tempo workouts. Indeed, if the smooth churning Shaw/Hayes group lacked anything at all it was a front line partner to match Shaw's imagination.

And that, too, has now been rectified. Jackie McLean's son, Rene McLean (find his excellent solo debut on the SteepleChase label) has now replaced Junior Cook. Compatability is assured.

I asked Woody to pinpoint the constituents of his own style.

"I guess I'm about the first trumpeter to use pentatatonic scales and modes and things like that. I used to listen to Trane and Dolphy and think, wow, how come nobody plays like that on the trumpet?

"So I swung round from the Freddie Hubbard. Lee Morgan axis and tried to play the trumpet like a saxophone. And in so doing I learned a whole lot more about my instrument.

I found I had to play pentatatonic scales through all the keys and after a while I found that I could jumble all these notes up and get a beautiful stream of harmonic color. At the same time I could play any changes.

"Flugelhorn? Yes. I've played flugelhorn a few times, but I'm sorta prejudiced against flugelhorn players. A lot of guys just use it to get a fat sound the easy way. Well, Clifford Brown never needed no flugelhorn, and I feel the same about it.

"I'm a trumpet player first and foremost, and proud of it."

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