Jazz music has more than its fair share of overshadowed figures that whilst contributing much to the music have little presence in its collective conscious. One such musician is the talented multi-reedist, Sahib Shihab, who despite emigrating from the United States in the early 1960’s managed to have a significant impact on the scene. Recording with some of the legends of bop, before embarking on a European career in jazz as a soloist and member of the successful Clarke Boland Big Band.
He was born Edmond Gregory in Savannah, Georgia in 1925, his earliest professional experience playing alto with Luther Henderson’s band, at the tender age of thirteen. After a period of study at the Boston Conservatory he went on to play with trumpet great Roy Eldridge and lead alto with Fletcher Henderson in the mid forties. Here he was still billed as Eddie Gregory but in 1947 he became an early jazz convert to Islam, rather quaintly referred to as Mohammedanism in the vernacular of the day.
The Bop explosion of the late 1940’s that swept through jazz gripped Sahib Shihab, as many others and he quickly became one of the leading Parker influenced altoists of the day. Proving himself well equipped to deal with the complexities of the new music, he contributed to a series of classic sides with Theolonius Monk, between 1947-51 laying down some of the cornerstones of Bop’s recorded history, including the original version of “Round About Midnight.” The self styled eccentric genius was an influential figure both on and off the bandstand and Shihab’s later work on Baritone owes a debt to Monk’s quirky and individual approach to the music.
During this period he also found time to appear on many recordings by popular jazz artists including Art Blakey, Miles Davis, Kenny Dorham, Benny Golson, Tadd Dameron and on John Coltrane’s first full session as leader for Prestige, First Trane
. The invitation to play with Dizzy Gillespie’s big band in the early fifties was of particular significance as it marked Sahib’s switch to Baritone, the instrument he became most readily associated with.
By the end of the fifties Sahib Shihab had become increasingly embittered by the position of the jazzman in the United States and in particular racial tension. ‘ I was getting tired of the atmosphere around New York,’ he informed downbeat in 1963. ‘...And I wanted to get away from some of the prejudice. I don’t have time for this racial bit. It depletes my energies.’ So in 1959 he leapt at the chance to depart its shores and join Quincy Jones band, touring with the musical ‘Free and Easy.’ He stayed with the band after the musical ended, travelling around Europe until engagements eventually ran out and the band was wound up. He decided to make Scandinavia his home and lived between Denmark and Sweden according to work permit allowances for the next twelve years. Here he found the ‘survival and peace of mind’ he needed and was soon active writing scores for television, cinema and the theatre and secured work at Copenhagen Polytechnic.
In 1961 he joined the enduring big band of fellow ex-patriot Kenny Clarke and the unorthodox Belgian pianist/composer Francy Boland. Sahib Shihab remained a key figure in the band for its 12 year run. Contributing his gruff, fluent sound on baritone and his fluttering expressive flute to many recordings and live settings. His idiosyncratic and distinctive style was well suited to the unpredictable arrangements of the band.
His own work from the 1960’s and early 70’s provides a fascinating document of a man completely at home with the idea of individuality and self-expression. While his earlier influences of swing and his days with Monk are evident, he manages to define himself on a variety of standards, ballads, and his own unusual compositions, often featuring curious arrangements and tempo changes. His flute technique is highlighted on the roaring “Om Mani Padme Hum” where, over a driving minor Latin groove; he applies his rich full tone along with an array of vocal expressions not dissimilar to Roland Kirk or Yusef Lateef. In the percussive “Seeds.” Sahib plays Baritone against a sparse conga rhythm to great effect, utilizing its hoarse, rasping sound and its guttural expressiveness. Deep-throated honks sharply punctuate his flowing lines as he soars into new passages of invention full of warmth and humour. His sometimes eccentric playing is always saying something fresh and his unorthodoxy is beguiling.