Jaleel Shaw: Philly Soul

George Colligan BY

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[ Editor's Note: The following interview is reprinted from George Colligan's blog, Jazztruth ]

Jaleel Shaw has been one of my favorite young alto players for about a decade. We first played together with the Charles Mingus Band, and we kept in touch over the years. I've worked a few times in his band and he's worked with me a number of times. You might know him from the Roy Haynes group, which he has been working with for a long time. Shaw has that amazing balance of depth and innovation in his sound and his improvisation. He's on my latest CD on the Steeplechase label, entitled The Facts (2013) and we just finished a great weekend with a quintet at the famed Smalls Jazz Club in New York City. I was glad to catch up with him and get an interview with one of the baddest cats on the New York jazz scene.

George Colligan: OK. What's your earliest memory of music?

Jaleel Shaw: Wow! My mom told one of the first movies she took me to see was The Muppet Movie and that I came home and was singing the music a few days later. I guess that impressed her! She had me in these music theory classes for children around five or six. My mother always had lots of recordings laying around. She checked out a lot of late John Coltrane, Alice Coltrane, Yusef Lateef, Pharoah Sanders, Ornette Coleman, Bob Marley, Michael Jackson, [and] Prince. So I heard a lot of that as a kid.

GC: Do you believe that alto is your instrument, and if so, why? Some guys double or triple, but other focus on one. And when did you know that alto was the one?

JS: I originally wanted to play drums and trumpet. I think my mother thought both were too loud! So I ended up picking the saxophone. Maybe she secretly wanted me to play saxophone now that I think of it. There were no saxophones available when I signed up, and I had to start off on clarinet. But a year later, I got an alto sax.

I honestly didn't think of playing anything else for a while. I don't really remember having the opportunity to switch, but I think the alto stuck to me like a glove. I really got into it and started checking out as many alto saxophonists as I could almost immediately.

Today, I play soprano as well and I'm really into it. I've been thinking about baritone too. There's something in that sound that I like. But ultimately, I think that alto is a very difficult instrument and I'm still working out my sound and I feel like I'm always trying to find better set ups, better mouthpieces, etc.

GC: Who are your saxophone heroes? Who are your non- saxophone playing musical heroes?

JS: I could be here all day with this one! My first alto saxophone hero was Bobby Watson. I was really into his playing and compositions and I got to meet him. When he came to Philadelphia, he became a close mentor and I still consider him a very close friend. Then, I started checking out lots of Cannonball Adderley, then Sonny Stitt, Johnny Hodges, Charlie Parker, and Lee Konitz. Of the younger alto saxophonists I was checking out Antonio Hart, Kenny Garrett, [and] Myron Walden.

Since I'm a Philly native, I got to be around Grover Washington Jr., and a man named Byard Lancaster. I was studying with a lot of great saxophonists [like] Robert Landham and Rayburn Wright. I also checked out lots of Maceo Parker.

In terms of non-alto players, I'm a huge fan of Mark Turner and Chris Potter. I also came up under the wing of Tim Warfield and got to play with him in Philly. Of course Trane, Sonny Rollins, Dexter Gordon, Stan Getz, Branford Marsalis, Joe Lovano, Steve Wilson for alto and soprano, and I'm really into Sam Newsome on soprano.

GC: Ok, maybe a few guys who aren't saxophone players who are really big influences?

JS: Oh right! Mulgrew Miller, Kurt Rosenwinkel, McCoy Tyner, Herbie Hancock, Dave Holland, Roy Haynes and Elvin Jones, Lennie Tristano, Freddie Hubbard, and Lee Morgan were all big influences.

GC: When did you know that you wanted music to be your life?

JS: When I was 12 probably. I came up in a jazz ensemble that was run by a man named Lovette Hines. He's a well known jazz educator in Philly and he's responsible for Christian McBride, Joey DeFrancesco, Johnathan Blake, Bilal, and a bunch of [other] people. He'd have these rehearsals every Saturday and we'd all get together and learn standards. I joined that when I was around 10 I think. So, being with so many young people that were into the music really helped. It naturally became my life. The kids in the band became my best friends and we'd spend hours on the phone playing records to each other and we'd perform whenever Mr. Hines had gigs for us. Have you seen this?

[Jaleel shows me a video]

GC: I did see that actually...

JS: So that was kind of the environment I was in. It was great!

GC: It's actually inspirational because you can see what an educator who cares can do for students and for the preservation of jazz. Without Mr. Hines we may [not] have McBride and may not have you!

JS: I honestly don't know how much I'd love music if it wasn't for my mom and Mr. Hines—he made it fun.

GC:Do you feel like you have a lot to live up to being from Philly? Was it a big deal to move to the New York area?

JS: I honestly think about Philly lineage a lot, especially when I see Christian McBride. That show on that video was one of my first performances. So I've always looked up to him ever since then and he's amazing. But I mean McCoy came out of Philly, Kurt Rosenwinkel is from Philly, and Lee Morgan was from Philly—that alone is insane to me! All of them were great musicians and great composers. There's definitely a vibe from Philly that I'm proud to be part of. I shouldn't say I feel like I have a lot to live up to—I definitely want to do my thing—but I think it's amazing to be from Philly. That energy is amazing.

I used to be afraid of New York, but once I moved to Boston and experienced that scene, I don't think I was nervous about NY anymore. Boston was intense. There were a lot of great musicians there, most of who are in NY now. And these cats just kept me on my feet, kept me influenced and motivated, so that fear I had wasn't the same after Boston

I can say that as far as gigs go and my actual future goes, I was scared to death about moving to the city! But things kind of fell into place

GC: Which sideman gigs have been your favorite? Don't feel any pressure to say The George Colligan Quartet!

JS: [Laughs]Someone just asked me a couple days ago! It's really hard for me to pick one because I'm always thankful to play new music and learn new changes. I'm really into challenges, even if it means I fall on my face and end up embarrassing myself. So it's really hard to say. My first gigs were with the Mingus Big Band and the Count Basie Big Band, which were two completely different musical settings.

I couldn't play the things I played with the Mingus Big Band in the Count Basie Big Band and vice versa, of course. I learned so much about time, swinging, and the blues from the Basie Band, and so much about being open and more free [sic] in the Mingus Band. With Roy Haynes, I've learned more about playing time. Roy has a looser ride beat so he's not playing ting-ting-a-ling, he's accenting what I play! So I really had to get my time together. Roy [has] always talked about Trane and Bird and how they both had impeccable time. But I've learned something from everyone. I'm playing with Tom Harrell's Colors Of A Dream group now, and to play with Tom, who's so lyrical and melodic is amazing. His phrasing and sense of time are just perfect! I just can't pick a favorite, though. Your session, The Facts, with the quartet was the first session I did where I went in the studio without a rehearsal. I don't remember rehearsing... did we? I was scared to death! But when I listen to it, I realized as much as it was a challenge, there's something fresh about recording music like that. I read a book about Lee Morgan that spoke about how he did that sort of thing pretty often. I hope to try that someday!

GC: Do you think social media/technology is helping or hurting the jazz scene? Or both?

JS: Maybe a little of both. I often wonder what Trane or Bird would tweet if they were alive now, or if they would even do that sort of thing at all. It's clear that it took lots of time and dedication for them to get where they got. We're talking about days when there were no TVs, and in some situations no phones, certainly no cell phones or smart phones. Now there's so much going on, so many distractions, and sometimes too much information. I wonder how much imagination and mystery is lost. On the plus side, as an independent artist, it's helped me a lot. I've put out two CDs on my own and I know it's really helped to get me out there. You couldn't make a post on your Facebook page 50 years ago to let people know your new CD was out. It's amazing that you can do that now.

GC: Any upcoming gigs or projects we should know about? Or past projects which we didn't hear enough about?

JS: I'll be performing at the Charlie Parker Festival on August 24th with my quartet, at the Philadelphia Art Museum with my group on the 23rd, and with Roy Haynes at the Newport Jazz Festival on Sunday the 4th. I'll be with EJ Strickland's band at Smoke on the 7th of August.

GC: Do you have any advice for the multitudes of young jazz students who are sitting in practice rooms around the globe, wondering what their next move should be?

JS: I would say practice like crazy, but get out. Go check out the artists you're into and try to get to know them. Ask questions; ask for lessons when cats come in town. I think it's important to get as much information as possible. Learn standards and get out to the sessions when you can and get together with your friends to play your originals. Start a separate bank account for your recordings and try to put a little bit of what you make into this account if you can. Don't sit around waiting for record labels to sign you! Try booking your own gigs and getting venues that may not normally have music to feature your group. I think it's time to try to open the scene up a bit more and try new things and create new opportunities.

Photo Credit
Lafiya Watson

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