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Charlie Shoemake Trios & Quartets: Vibes Master

J. Robert Bragonier By

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asked to name favorite vibraphone players—and I am as guilty as anyone here— Charlie Shoemake’s name is mentioned all too infrequently. For more than 45 years, Shoemake has made his home on the West Coast, and word of his abilities seems never to have made it all the way to New York. An artist who eschews vibrato, as did Red Norvo, Shoemake has a glistening sound, exquisite taste, and boppish sensibilities; his biggest jazz influence has been Charlie Parker, with Bud Powell and the ‘50s Sonny Rollins close behind.

Shoemake’s love for a melodic line derives perhaps from the fact that, like Victor Feldman, he gravitated to vibes from the piano, rather than the percussion section. Born in July 1937 in Houston, Texas, he studied piano informally with Jimmy Rowles (after spending one year at SMU) and played in Los Angeles from 1956-63 with Charles Lloyd, Art Pepper and Howard Rumsey’s Lighthouse All- Stars, among others. Having played the vibes in high school, Shoemake took up the instrument in earnest in the early ‘60s and subsequently recorded with Lalo Schifrin, Quincy Jones, Nelson Riddle, and Johnny Mandel as a studio musician. In 1966 he joined George Shearing’s quintet and toured and recorded with that group until 1973. Since that time he has taught primarily, performed secondarily, and recorded sparingly, although his sidemen have included the likes of Pete Christlieb, Hank Jones, Paul Motian, and Tom Harrell. His favorite gig is still accompanying his wife of 44 years, singer Sandi Shoemake.

All of the ten selections on this release (with the possible exception of the lone original composition, “Blue Shoe Revisited”) are rich with melody, jam-packed with harmonic changes, and relatively infrequently played or recorded. Other composers include Bob Brookmeyer, Horace Silver, George Shearing, and John Coltrane, together with such tunesmiths of the Great American Songbook as Richard Rodgers, Johnny Mercer, Richard Whiting, and Jimmy McHugh.

On Brookmeyer’s “Open Country,” the trio kicks off the album with a comfortable groove and conversational interplay between Shoemake and Forman. “Creepin’ In” features a quartet setting; Shoemake and Silver have abruptly transmuted the genre to soul jazz, adroitly abetted by Holloway’s bluesy tenor. A straight-ahead groove returns with the mid-tempo “Thou Swell”; the approach is predictable but palatable, with opening chorus, solos by Shoemake and Forman, chorus of traded fours, and final chorus, before a surprise final resolution. “Moon Dreams” is a shimmering ballad; “Blue Horizon,” a brisk romp; and “Blue Shoe Revisited,” a slightly off-center, tantalizing blues, with the irrepressible Red Holloway again joining the quartet.

The guitar trio returns for three of the last four selections; on the fourth, drummer Kreibich returns to drive along Coltrane’s complex but accessible “Straight Street.” Shearing’s “The Fourth Deuce” is as cool and dry as a martini (stirred, not shaken); vibes/guitar unisons and Bob Maize’s bass solo are especially worth savoring. “South of the Border” sparkles with open, good humor. Finally, “Cuban Love Song” brings the CD to its satisfying conclusion. Delectable jazz waltzes are an acknowledged weakness of mine, and ending an album with one is a sure way to keep me coming back for more.

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