In the late 1970s, jazz seemed to be shaking out of a period of commercial doldrums. Magazine articles trumpeting “Jazz is back!” appeared as the first wave of electric fusion started to fade and as major artists like Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter (then touring as part of “VSOP”) returned to acoustic jazz. A major symbol of jazz’s mainstream revival was the return to the United States of expatriate tenor titan Dexter Gordon. No less than Columbia Records chose to capture his Homecoming live gig on vinyl. Dexter played great, and he chose as his foil and front-line partner a previously obscure trumpeter/cornetist named Woody Shaw.
Woody Shaw had a unique CV—early experience in Eric Dolphy’s band, but then stints with both Art Blakey and Horace Silver. He made a multitude of sharp recordings as a sideman, and then recorded some on his own, showing a knack for writing memorable tunes—“The Moontrane” becoming a semi-standard. He was a musician’s musician, praised by Miles Davis but largely unknown. Gordon’s Homecoming, however, caught Bruce Ludvall’s ear as Columbia endured Miles’s cocaine-fueled “retirement”. If jazz was “back”, as the magazines said, then Columbia needed a trumpet hero to lead the way. Why not Shaw?
In 1978, the label released Woody’s major label debut, Rosewood, to near-universal acclaim. In that year’s Downbeat Reader’s Poll, both the album and Shaw were voted to the top of the class. It was an example, during a pretty cynical time, of an unknown Good Guy coming out of nowhere to make it big. The whole thing gave you some faith in humanity. Stepping Stones, now being reissued by Columbia-Sony’s Legacy imprint, was the live follow-up to Woody’s major label debut.
Before we turn to the music, however… the rest of the (sad) story. Though Stepping Stones was a notable success, each subsequent Woody Shaw album on Columbia would be (a) less accomplished, and (b) more influenced by the desire to commercialize the product. This was, after all, an era of Chuck Mangione “Feels So Good”-ery. By 1982, Columbia had gone five albums deep with Mr. Shaw, but they now had another trumpeter on the roster—a young, brash, jazz/classical double-threat by the name of Wynton Marsalis. Shaw was dropped from the label and never made it even close to the big top again. In the meantime, the trumpeter that Miles had praised as being an innovator superior to Freddie Hubbard suffered substantial vision loss due to retinitis pigmentosa and severe depression. He died in 1989 after falling down the steps of a Brooklyn subway station, being hit by a train and losing his arm. Woody was only 44 years old.
Stepping Stones is a fitting way to remember the height of Shaw’s career. Recorded live down the narrow stairs of the Village Vanguard over a two-night stand, this collection is a superb example of how “hard bop” was slowly evolving to incorporate new grooves and hipper sounds. Mr. Shaw, somewhat like a later Blakey protégé, Bobby Watson, has a stone knack for writing infectious themes, and Stepping Stones is chock-a-block with hummable tunes that are both tricky and unforgettable. The opener/title track is built around a syncopated figure that is repeated and modulated, then shifted to a Latin feel and straight-up swung for the solos. It’s a toe-tapper, but only for folks with advanced toe skills.
This tune also clues you in to the kind of fire-breathing band this is. Woody starts the solos, crackling on cornet, playing flips and large interval-leaps, swirling like an alto sax rather than a trumpet, sounding like no one but himself. But after one chorus, it’s on to Carter Jefferson’s tenor, surging from the bottom of his register upward while pianist Onaje Allan Gumbs roller-coasters beneath him. Back to Woody for 32 bars, then Carter again, then a relay race of eight-bar trades, then four, then two—POW! The water simmers for a while, but mostly it boils. The Gumbs solo that follows is typical of him—highly rhythmic and with frequent resort to powerful chording, gospel licks in the right hand, and huge climaxes. Victor Lewis even gets a turn on drums, bringing the tune a touch of Max Roach-style melodic playing.
It’s obvious that this was an exciting working band. Not only do all the pieces lock together perfectly, but Woody was well on his way to creating an identifiable and unique group sound. On the title track and on Victor Lewis’s “Seventh Avenue”, Shaw’s cornet and Jefferson’s soprano sax sound very nearly like a single instrument, even on the harmonies. Gumbs’s piano is exceptionally active even during the ensembles of each tune, giving the proceedings a harder, funkier groove than most straight-ahead jazz. There’s no overt fusion here, there’s no appropriation of a rock rhythms or groove-music styles, yet the evidence here is plain: this was a hard bop group attuned to contemporary ears. Columbia was right—these guys could have been big.
Here’s how catchy these guys are: The album’s third track, “Seventh Avenue”, is an outright funky groove, in 7/8 time. Gumbs, Houston, and Lewis play with splashy abandon, while the soloists play as if 7/8 time had been beat on their heads throughout childhood. It could not be more fun to listen to.
Even on the more traditional tunes, where Mr. Jefferson plays tenor and the rhythm section functions more traditionally, this music is remarkably alive and unforgettable. “In a Capricornian Way”, a Shaw original, is a skipping waltz that lingers on your tongue. “All Things Being Equal Are Not” is a ballad by the pianist that traces a lovely, long arc before the solos unravel gracefully for ten minutes. This tune is heard on this release for the first time, replacing a funkier Gumbs tune that appeared on the original LP. According to the liner notes, the original track was a bid for radio play. Huh? As accessible as this jazz truly is, the notion that it was going to bring Columbia any radio play suggests a complete misunderstanding by the record company of both the market and this music. Miles didn’t get radio play in the 1970s, and Wynton was not to get significant radio play in the 1980s. Despite this, Woody was soon relegated to smaller labels, and lush, thoughtful performances like “All Things Being Equal” were not to be heard on the larger labels again.
This version of Stepping Stones finishes with two other tracks not on the LP. “Escape Velocity” was on the next of the original Columbias (Woody III, for those who were counting), a burner by bassist Clint Houston that speeds into a set of fours between Shaw and Jefferson having more melodic ideas than any 20 pop albums on the market today. But the treat of this release is surely the quintet’s assaying of McCoy Tyner’s “Blues for Ball”—a genuine twelve-bar that lets all the cats play at their most natural and free. Shaw’s solo displays all the traits he was celebrated for. You hear the traces of Freddie Hubbard in his playing, but mostly you hear his singular penchant for large intervallic leaps and surprising melodic turns. On “Blues”, the trumpet playing is all Woody, all the way.
A personal note: Toward the end of Shaw’s career and life, I went to see him at a now-vanquished DC club, playing with a local rhythm section. He played well, though he looked thin and his vision was so bad that he had to be escorted on and off the bandstand by the pianist. After the last set, a friend and I stepped out of the club for some air. Coming toward us was a large man, well fed and with a beautiful woman on his arm. As he came closer, we saw the telltale scarring just below his lower lip and realized it was a trumpet player—in fact, it was Freddie Hubbard. We knew he was playing at Blues Alley that night with McCoy Tyner, because we had chosen to see Woody instead.
Mr. Hubbard got closer to us and scanned the area for a sign of the club, One Step Down. He looked at us and asked, in a raspy voice, “Where’s Woody?”
For now, at least, he’s right here—caught live and at his very best. He’s well remembered.