Woody Shaw: The Moontrane
In a genre full of tragically short-lived performers, Woody Shaw's story is exceptionally tragic. Legally blind and beset with emotional problems, he was killed in a subway accident in 1989 without ever attaining the recognition attentive listeners knew he deserved. The Mosaic box set of his Columbia recordings a few years ago placed him in a linear development of trumpet players between Hubbard and Marsalis; this was, no doubt, a highly questionable analysis (mainly because it left out Miles Davis altogether), but it indicated the high regard and influence Shaw has had or should have had over other trumpet players.
The Moontrane, recorded in late 1974, was Shaw's breakthrough album. It is aptly named, for although Shaw was during his lifetime routinely (and with relative inaccuracy) compared to Hubbard, he sounds more like John Coltrane. Now to replicate Coltrane's lightning runs and dense harmonic lines on trumpet is no mean feat; Shaw not only does it repeatedly, but with impeccable precision and taste. The Moontrane sports the Coltrane-ish tenor and soprano man Azar Lawrence, who was also part of McCoy Tyner's Coltrane-ish modal recordings of the early Seventies.
"Sanyas," by a young Steve Turre, who is also part of Shaw's basic quartet, is a modal workout with some intense soprano work by Lawrence, recalling the reedy Eastern feel of many of Coltrane's soprano recordings. Shaw is simply stunning here, with long clean lines to take the breath away. Then comes pianist Onaje Allen Gumbs, a Shaw favorite, playing unplugged on this track a first-rate McCoy Tyner impersonation. Cecil McBee plays bass on three tracks, Buster Williams on two. (There are also two alternates, both featuring McBee.) Victor Lewis on drums keeps things going, but doesn't light any fires. Percussionists Tony Waters and Guilherme Franco join in here and there.
"The Moontrane" became Shaw's signature tune. Here it gets a straightforward reading enlivened by the sterling trumpet of the master himself. "Tapscott's Blues" is more passionate, with Lawrence and Shaw vying intriguingly for Best Post-Coltrane Solo honors. Turre sounds throughout the disc a little less developed than the trombonist he has subsequently become, but that doesn't mean he doesn't hold up his end. Actually, as the only one of the frontmen not to be deeply influenced by the Coltrane Quartet, he adds piquancy to the sound.
"Katrina Ballerina" is a boppish tune with more stunning work from Shaw, whose fluency in the trumpet's lower register is just as striking as his speed. Gumbs shines on his own "Are They Only Dreams," as does Turre on the opening sections of his "Sanyas." Shaw himself penned "The Moontrane" and "Katrina Ballerina," putting him in the group of great jazz performers who could write their own great tunes. Alas that he didn't write more.