Lee Shaw has many stories to tell. As a soloist, bandleader, hired hand and educator, she has seen a lot of things happen in the world of jazz in her 84 years. Much of that time was spent outside of the spotlight during her Florida years as she quietly immersed herself into the Ft. Lauderdale music scene. But now, long past retirement age, Shaw is seeing some action at home and abroad as her latest trio continues to get gig invites. These two new albums of hers, Together Again: Live at the Egg and Live at Art Gallery Reutlingen, tell two different stories from two different venues with two very different sets.
Together Again: Live at the Egg is a reunion of Shaw and one of her most famous students: John Medeski. While living and working in Ft. Lauderdale in the ’70s, Shaw began giving lessons to a 13-year-old Medeski, at the request of his mother. Shaw recognized his talents and began giving him a crash course in jazz performance and appreciation, in addition to fostering his free improvisation skills. The mind is a fertile thing when you are that young and talented, and these lessons were just the right boost to send Medeski on his way. He later became a high-profile in-demand session pianist as well as a third of one of the most popular instrumental funk-jazz trios of the past 20 years (Medeski, Martin and Wood, obviously).
Years passed and the other members of Shaw’s trio, bassist Rich Syracuse and drummer Jeff “Siege” Siegel, thought that a reunion show for the two keyboardists would be a nice idea. And it was. Together Again: Live at the Egg operates differently from most live albums created within a trad-jazz context. Instead of playing then restating themes outside of a bunch of solo rounds, the set gives more attention to melodies, the textural aspects of improvisation, and stretching the forms of these songs into something less symmetrical and predictable. Right off the bat, Shaw and Medeski make up a song on the spot, ushering the trust of the rhythm section through a piece that is based on nothing more than an idea. That idea: lizards; specifically the ones that scurried to and fro on Shaw’s patio back in the ’70s when Shaw was working to free up Medeski’s mind for free improvisation. The rest of the set alternates between Shaw originals and Medeski originals, all of which play out so much more unique than tired standards. Medeski’s triple duty on piano, organ and melodica take an already varied program and give it more shading. The introduction to Shaw’s “Prairie Child” shows off the set’s virtues within just a few seconds: Shaw’s terrific introduction, Medeski’s bubbly Melodica line, and Siegel’s woodblock horse-gallop, which transforms into a full-kit waltz time pattern without him breaking a sweat. (Fans of Medeski, Martin and Wood should take note that two songs from It’s A Jungle In Here make the set: “Where’s Sly?” and “Wiggly’s Way.”).
The other album in question has a far less interesting story and yields far less interesting results. Lee Shaw’s trio was invited to play at an art gallery in Germany called the Reutlingen. They were joined by two European saxophone greats, Johannes Enders and Michael Lutzeier. Live at Art Gallery Reutlingen is the live trad-jazz album, the opposite of Together Again in many ways. First of all, a lot of old-school warhorses get thrown into the set, like “Stella by Starlight”, “Falling in Love Again”, “It’s Alright with Me” and “Lonely Town.” Everything is played out in the usual jam session way, with nothing much happening. This would make a neat souvenir for everyone in attendance, since the photos show that everyone was enjoying themselves. Even the image of the gallery’s staff posing with the band make it look like they were totally going to Facebook each other after the show. But Live at Art Gallery Reutlingen is the type of album that, when I put it on, I easily forgot it was playing.
So while Together Again: Live at the Egg portrays Lee Shaw as a contemporary force to be reckoned with, Live at Art Gallery Reutlingen shows her and her band going through the motions of being working musicians. Taken together, you shouldn’t count her out. But these two recordings still sound like the result of their surroundings, so perhaps Shaw just needs to keep going down the path less traditional. It sounds like she’s very proud of her old pupil. Surely she has more that would create the same spark with her.