Jimmy McGriff


I hope that whatever makes me happy makes you happy. While checking out music on YouTube during work, I stumbled upon live footage of organist Jimmy McGriff.

This seriously gave me a lift. Great footage. French voice-over, French concert poster of January/February 1969, The Apollo Club. Likely in Paris? McGriff clicks on the light for what looks like a pre-concert afternoon tv-special/announcement. Look at McGriff and his band’s driving exercise of the blues. McGriff performs Keep Loose, which was released on the Solid State album The Worm and the B-side of the single The Worm in 1968. See here.

His band here consists of tenor saxophonist Leo Johnson, guitarist Larry Frazier and drummer Jesse Kilpatrick. Frazier and Kilpatrick did not play on the recorded version but had joined McGriff’s band in ’69 and were featured on the heavy organ blues winner Step One. Johnson and Frazier are enigma’s (for me), Kilpatrick was the former drummer of organ group Billy Larkin & The Delegates.

Few played the blues with the grit, grease and controlled abandon of McGriff. Killer stuff!

RIP Wallace Roney


Trumpeter Wallace Roney sadly passed away on March 31 at the age of 59. Roney succumbed to the Covid-19 virus.

A Young Lion that burst on the scene in the mid-eighties as the protegé of Miles Davis, and ex-husband of the late great pianist Geri Allen, Roney was one of the great trumpeters of his generation, enjoying stints with Art Blakey and Tony Williams and sustaining a fruitful career ever after. I coincidentally reviewed his last album, Blue Dawn Blue Nights for Jazz Journal UK, read here. Blue Dawn Blue Lights featured Roney’s nephew, Kojo Odu, on drums. Thoughts go to Roney’s wife and children.

(Clockwise from l. to r: Verses (Verve 1987); Tribute To Miles (Warner Bros 1994); Blue Dawn Blue Nights, HighNote 2019)

Read obit NY Times here.

Roney lives!

Jazz In Times Of Corona Vol. 1


Terribly unfortunate events are going on day by day, especially somewhere else… in other parts of the world than our Western world. But the Covid-19 crisis is universal and without borders and the fact that other countries often are less stable doesn’t make the impact on our civilization less penetrating. The Covid-19 crisis creeps in the pores of society, and is a worrisome and occasionally fatal development especially for the health of the elderly and vulnerable. We’re in the thick of it and the outcome is unsure. Life has become substantially more surreal by the day… the melting watches and distorted landscapes of Dali and the flying cello ships of Richard “Prophet” Jennings don’t come close. Perhaps our lives have always been surreal and we have been unable to perceive it, until now.

We’re subjected to a strange mix of level-headedness and bewilderment, of thinking that time will heal or feeling that confusion will be our epitaph. Perhaps, as the weeks go by, puzzlement will gradually subside. In the meantime many of us need all the charity, determination and good humor that we are able to muster, and fortunately there hasn’t been a shortage of that of late. Yours truly, the Flophouse Floor Manager, while perhaps more jittery and nervous than he cares to admit, is ok. Amongst loved ones and wallowing in his usual mad laughter and subterranean detachement. Helping out the old folks of Amsterdam by day, jivin’ with jazz at night…

A bit of good-time live music would be a major upper for us aficionados. But that is the trouble at the heart of the interviews below. Records (and a good glass of single malt whiskey) are still within reach. But the curtains are drawn and club owners and jazz musicians are at a loss. Like all artists that work freelance for most of the time, jazz musicians are caught between a rock and a hard place, and the wound is open, and the bandages are out of stock… Typically competent in struggling their way out of a mess, considering their skill for improvisation and uncommon discipline, you can see them finding a way out of the labyrinth. However, looming fate is hard to suppress… So I was wondering how jazz musicians personally feel, where they stand now that their professional career is in jeopardy, how they fill their gig-less days and nights, perceive the future for the jazz business and, last but not least, if there is a positive note to the shock that the crisis has brought about.

So the floor is theirs. In part 1, tenor saxophonist Simon Spillett from London, U.K., French guitarist Félix Lemerle from New York City, U.S.A. and trumpeter Ellister van der Molen from The Hague, The Netherlands, whom I kindly thank for their insights and a glimpse into their way of dealing with the Covid-19 crisis.

Simon Spillett: “My father, who is aged 80 and terminally ill with cancer, is in a nursing home which has, in line with government advice, been placed in lockdown. I have been unable to see him for a number of days but am in regular touch with those charged with his care. Of the various impacts the Covid-19 crisis has made upon my life, this is indisputably the hardest to bear. It’s heartbreaking to not see my father.

Although I also teach privately, run a youth big band at a music centre and write sleeve notes and record reviews, the main bulk of my income is as a performing jazz musician. Therefore to have perhaps 95% of your monthly cash-flow disappear overnight is both unprecedented and extremely worrying.

At present I am continuing to write and have been offered several small commissions from record labels and magazines which will help keep some income coming in but it will be insufficient to cover my outgoings. On March 26 the UK government announced a financial help package for those who are in self-employment like myself but as yet we are unsure about exactly how this will be implemented. And, with the timeline indicating payment no earlier than June, the following two months are likely to be extremely tough indeed for myself and many of my colleagues.

Like many musicians I know, I live in rented property and am hoping that the landlords will be sympathetic to these challenging circumstances. However, if not – despite the official deferment of legal evictions until at least three months time – I will almost certainly eventually lose my flat. Whichever way this current crisis plays out its impact on myself – and many fellow musicians -will be serious and have longer term ramifications.”

Félix Lemerle: “A regular day nowadays is pretty similar to a day without a gig, meaning I would stay home and practice. I’m in the Artist Diploma at Juilliard, so all classes have been moved online. Some classes work well remotely. However, we are still figuring out what to do to make the best use of our ensemble rehearsals, since we cannot play together. Days feel pretty similar so I’m glad school is still on so that it gives me something to differentiate them.

There’s a lot of people doing videos of themselves playing or collaborating with others with apps like Acapella or the like, but I didn’t jump on the bandwagon yet. I feel like social media are saturated with it, and I don’t think the spirit of our music is conveyed when there is none of the interaction that happens when playing together live. Musicians — those that don’t have to immediately put themselves at risk by taking another job because they need money right now, that is — will have more time to practice, but nothing substitutes playing with other people.”

Ellister van der Molen: “In spite of everything I try to spend my time as useful as possible and I keep my hand on the purse. My survival more or less depends on how many of my dates will be cancelled. I’m really in trouble when my summer projects – a concert tour in institutions for the elderly and workshops in Switzerland – will be cancelled. Otherwise, depending on what the outcome will be of the Tozo agreement, (governmental support, FM) I will just about manage to get by.

I sleep pretty late, but comparatively less late than usual, since the late night gigs have been cancelled! I keep in shape. I’m on the phone all the time with my father. Furthermore, I’m studying trumpet and planning the new season: a new record, arranging, online workshops, website updating, acquisition. It’s still a bit of a jumble but it’s no time to take a holiday.”

(Clockwise from l. to r: Simon Spillett; Félix Lemerle; Ellister van der Molen)

Simon Spillett: “After years of travelling across the UK to and from gigs my days now look and feel very different. Jazz musicians are famously supposed to be late risers in the morning, although few I’ve met actually are. Well, I’m now having fun making that cliché ring true! Seriously though, as soon as I could see the disruptive pattern that this pandemic was likely to bring, I made a resolution not to panic – self-isolation and considerable time alone are, after all, things that working musicians are very familiar with through years of study and practice. We’re also mostly very happy with our own company, despite the gregarious nature of our job.

My days so far have followed a pattern of writing during the morning and early afternoon, followed by a walk for exercise or, if absolutely necessary, a trip to a supermarket. I’m in daily contact with my friends within the jazz business. My girlfriend is also a jazz performer who has faced exactly the same overnight cancellations of her work and we speak each day, a conversation that keeps us both sane and focused.

Jazz musicians are extremely sensitive, most often with incredibly encompassing world views. They’re also experts in the unexpected, dealing with it on a daily basis. And they have an amazing capacity to see humour in the bleakest of circumstance; I’m very happy that I have friends like this right now. They do feel like a genuine community!

I keep myself busy writing. Although I haven’t touched my instrument in around a week, I am still thinking of music. I listen each day, choosing a different album to hear each morning as I get ready for the day, by no means all of them jazz. And I am thinking of how my work and attitude to it will change after we are again able to play in public. It’s a huge opportunity to refresh and rethink one’s approach.

I am also using the considerable time to reflect on what music means to me, not only as my livelihood but as a way of life. I am like a great many people, both those who play and those who listen, in that I’ve taken for granted the luxury of live music. If anything has proved definitively the binding power than music has on society it’s this current crisis.”

Félix Lemerle: “Hopefully this won’t last too long, but I’m pretty pessimistic. The economic impact on small businesses like clubs and restaurants will result in them closing or stopping live music even after the quarantine is over. I hope the scene will recover, but I’m sure this will be a major blow to an already struggling sector.

I don’t feel like there is much positivity about it. I can’t afford to romanticize the situation. I am lucky enough to have some money put aside, so my fiancee and I will be able to survive a couple months without income and no federal help, both of us being foreigners. But I’m thinking of all the working class people that lost their jobs, especially in times of absurd economic disparity, when 40% of people in the US can’t afford a $400 emergency and have no social safety net, the health care system is in crisis, and the government’s answers are so inadequate.”

Simon Spillett: “If, as predicted by many in the UK, our social distancing policy continues on into the summer months, then I feel deeply worried for the British jazz community. Some performers will be unable to bounce immediately back from this unexpected ‘pause’ as very few promoters are planning ahead, quite understandably. I’m not sure how I’ll continue at present.

I also fear that the grass roots venues – which are my ‘bread and butter’ – are truly in jeopardy. Many of their promoters, and almost all of their audience, fall into the ‘vulnerable’ category as defined by the UK government. It’s difficult not to see the current crisis as a potential death knell for this way of presenting and promoting jazz here in Great Britain and I truly fear that some of these lovely little clubs will just fade away from sight altogether in the wake of Covid-19.

It’s strange: there has been reams and reams of debate about the health, future and viability of jazz over the past few years, all of which, in light of Coronavirus, now seem altogether academic. There were lots of naysayers out there saying jazz was dead, it was no longer growing, it had no wider social relevance and that it wouldn’t take much to kill it off completely. Nobody could’ve predicted that a pandemic would enter the equation. I don’t think jazz will die through this – either here in the UK or anywhere else – but I do think we may have to look at it in a new way when all the dust settles. I think it was Roy Haynes who once said ‘jazz is like a cockroach – you try and stamp it out and it keeps on going’. That’s my belief now: it’ll survive this, and as the past has shown – think Prohibition, the Second World War, the Civil Rights battles of the 1960s – it’ll use circumstance to strengthen its relevance.”

Ellister van der Molen: “Everybody in the jazz scene is pretty concerned about one another, that’s cool. Surprisingly, we somehow have swapped the quick text message for the old-school phone call! Anyway, I need to be creative and find alternative ways to gain the audience and mine the digital world through YouTube, social media streams, newsletters, DIY recording, podcasting etcetera. I have to peddle arrangements and am thinking about performing for the elderly through the phone via Stichting Muziek Aan Huis. These are things that I have been neglecting because of a lack of will or time.”

Félix Lemerle: “On a personal note, I appreciate the time with my fiancee. I’m using my time to practice and she has school online. I really hope this will make people realize the need for a strong health care system, and more globally the importance of commons vs. neoliberal individualism. Again, I’m pretty pessimistic.”

Simon Spillett: “You can’t separate a musician from humanity so I’m also thinking of those I love, where I want to be when all this is over and, ultimately, what lessons we’ll have learned from this historic global event. Sometimes, although it can seem like life or death, you realise that jazz is just part of what you do, not all of who you are; a saxophone is just a saxophone; the search for the ‘perfect’ reed is just something you have to do; you can always take another crack at playing that chorus. All this is now firmly in perspective for me and, I hope, it’ll make me a better person as a result, whatever I do in the future.”

Jazz In Times Of Corona Vol. 1

Check out these websites:
Simon Spillett here.
Félix Lemerle here.
Ellister van der Molen here.

Photography Ellister van der Molen: Karin van Gilst

Saxophonist and writer Simon Spillett keeps a daily diary on Facebook which I urge everyone to check out.

Walt Dickerson - This Is Walt Dickerson

Walt Dickerson This Is Walt Dickerson! (New Jazz 1961)

This Is Walt Dickerson signaled the arrival of a new and original voice on the vibraphone.

Walt Dickerson - This Is Walt Dickerson


Walt Dickerson (vibraphone), Austin Crow (piano), Bob Lewis (bass), Andrew Cyrille (drums)


on March 7, 1961 at Rudy van Gelder Studio, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey


as NJLP 8254 in 1961

Track listing

Side A:
The Cry
Side B:
Death And Taxes
Infinite You

The New Jazz label merits plenty of attention. The starting point for Bob Weinstock’s recording endeavors in 1949, Weinstock dropped the name in favor of Prestige in 1951, only to reinvent the name as the imprint for a hodgepodge of records in the late 50s and early 60s ranging from Johnny “Hammond” Smith to John Coltrane. The bulk consisted of avant-leaning sessions and served somewhat as the mirror image of Blue Note’s cutting-edge department, which offered challenging records by Herbie Hancock, Jackie McLean and Bobby Hutcherson. New Jazz is lesser known to the general audience but equally exciting. After all these years, the energy of New Jazz albums by Steve Lacy, Yusef Lateef, Jaki Byard, Roy Haynes, Mal Waldron, Eric Dolphy and Oliver Nelson is still palpable. All of these records, both Blue Note and New Jazz, were engineered by Rudy van Gelder. Busy bee, Rudy. Seven days a week. Didn’t go on vacation, mostly stayed inside. Turned more pale by the minute. Sun shone not on his face but in the grooves of the great jazz men’s waxed offerings.

Dickerson is of the post-bop variety, concerned with the expansion of the vocabulary of the vibraphone, an expressive player that prefers the broad range of the modal sound palette. Dickerson’s four albums on New Jazz, recorded in 1961 and ’62, present the kind of seductive, tentative hybrids of mainstream and avant-garde that are just close enough to the tradition and not really too far out for me to enjoy. I feel that it’s the tension between tradition and experiment that gives records like Dickerson’s on New Jazz their particular charm.

The attraction of This Is Walt Dickerson’s set, my favorite of his foursome of New Jazz records that was concluded with Relativity, A Sense Of Direction and To My Queen, lies in the particular handling of a minimum of motives, which are played out, considering Dickerson’s abundant double-timing, remarkably unhurriedly. It’s a transient experience, soothing, hypnotic. Dickerson and his companion on the piano, Austin Crow, feel their way in a landscape without the customary chord changes and reach for a like-minded path through the dusk, their thoughts fanning out to the far reaches of the keyboard. Passionately, but not overtly dramatic, they express their emotions in no uncertain terms. This is stuff that goes from the gut to the heart. The base, consisting of bassist Bob Lewis and drummer Andrew Cyrille, future avant heavy, is solid and responsive. Young Cyrille’s accents and loose but solid feel perfectly bring out the qualities of Dickerson’s charged style.

No inconsiderate words should be said about a record that includes a crackerjack title like Death And Taxes. Pretty mean tune, too, with a quirky waltz feel and a couple of motives played out to full effect. The Cry, on the other hand, is a one-chord mambo romp, Time a sly medium-tempo take on the blues, Infinite You a relentless modal swinger. The tempo of Dickerson’s ballads, Elizabeth and Evelyn, is unusually slow, and is contrasted with torrents of sizzling and boiling notes by Dickerson, which never sound superfluous. I’m sure that Elizabeth and Evelyn, whoever they may have been, were touched considerably by Dickerson, who is singing his heart out below the balcony.

After the more avant Plays Unity on Audio Fidelity and an album with Sun Ra, Dickerson took a 10-year sabbatical in the mid-sixties and recorded mostly for Steeplechase in the late 70s. Dickerson passed away in 2008.

Pete La Roca - Basra

Pete La Roca Basra (Blue Note 1965)

Drummer Pete La Roca delved into exotic modality on his much-admired 1965 record on Blue Note, Basra.

Pete La Roca - Basra


Pete La Roca (drums), Joe Henderson (tenor saxophone), Steve Kuhn (piano), Steve Swallow (bass)


on May 19, 1965 at Rudy van Gelder Studio, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey


as RLP 12-232 in 1956

Track listing

Side A:
Tears Come From Heaven
Side B:
Lazy Afternoon

If I say Pete La Roca you will most likely answer with: Sonny Rollins, Live At The Village Vanguard. Small wonder, since it is his feature on Rollins’ game-changing LP that put him squarely in the vision of the night binoculars of serious jazz fans. Bird watchers may constitute a fanatical breed, blessed with encyclopedic knowledge, waiting patiently in their cabin in the woods. But serious jazz fans are a passionate lot as well. They spot a gem from miles away and will discuss the merit of the “birds” that play on the disc much in the manner of monks pondering over the words of Saint Augustine.

La Roca shared sideman duties on Village Vanguard with the developing genius of Elvin Jones. As the sole accompanist, however, there are plenty of top-notch features that serious jazz fans cough up effortlessy. He played on, for instance, George Russell’s cutting-edge The Outer View, Joe Henderson’s hard bop winner Page One, Jaki Byard’s far-out Hi-Fly, Slide Hampton’s soulful Sister Salvation and Art Farmer’s folk song gem To Sweden With Love.

La Roca recorded only three albums as a leader: Basra, Turkish Women At The Bath (Douglas 1967) and Swingtime (Blue Note 1997). La Roca – born Pete Sims, the pseudonym was made up after years of playing in Latin bands in his birthplace of New York City – was a taxi driver in the 70s. It’s a disgrace that fine black artists as La Roca had to resort to day (or night) jobs, however honorable the menial activity may be. But it must’ve been one swinging cab. La Roca subsequently attended law school at New York University and returned to jazz in 1979. He passed away in 2012 at age 74.

Basra and Turkish Women At The Bath are highly collectible artifacts, acclaimed albums for the wildly ecstatic ‘bird watchers’. With sound reason, it’s a hell of a couple of albums. Turkish Women is impressive experiment, terse complex groove and abstract painting, as much colored perhaps by Chick Corea than LaRoca, though, it must be said, La Roca wrote all originals. (It was released by Muse under Corea’s name as Bliss, which La Roca successfully fought in court) Basra is progressive mid-sixties Blue Note, on par with the records of Bobby Hutcherson, Herbie Hancock, Jackie McLean, adventurous with a keen sense of the past. It’s a sleeper for the general audience, a winner for the birdwatchers. And it features a number of interesting feathered creatures: tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson, pianist Steve Kuhn and bassist Steve Swallow.

Both Malaguena and Basra are one-chord (Spanish and Eastern-flavored) drones resting on the fantastic, loose-but-solid drumming from La Roca. Either the man’s got a hip approach to the snare drum or his engineers were in continuous top form, but I’ve heard a lot a awesome drums sounds from La Roca. His snare drum is the Crisp of Crispiness, a healthy slap in the face, cocky like a 42nd Street hustler and wide like the open spaces of East Texas. Joe Henderson is comfortable with the exotic groove, his patiently timed clusters of grunts, growls and bellows on the drone admirable. Henderson whirls lines around the chord like the way a snake charmer directs the movement of the reptile on the streets of Manila or Punjab. He really creeps deep into the vessels of the groove. Candu is loose-jointed blues, Tears Come From Heaven a crisp modal romp, Eiderdown a dark-hued Wayne Shorter-ish melody, Lazy Afternoon a piece of slow-moving ambience with a leading role for the impressionistic Steve Kuhn.

Sometimes the rebellious La Roca hits his polyrhythm as hard and wide as Elvin. Can you imagine?! It’s that kind of excellence and power driving Basra, coupled with the Rudy van Gelder touch, that has for many years now caused the bird watchers to drop their binoculars in awe.

Rhoda Scott - Live At The Key Club

The Rhoda Scott Trio Live! At The Key Club (Tru-Sound 1963)

Early in her career, organist Rhoda Scott brought down the house with unvarnished, r&b-drenched soul jazz.

Rhoda Scott - Live At The Key Club


Rhoda Scott (organ, vocals), Joe Thomas (tenor saxophone, vocals), Bill Elliott (drums, vocals)


in 1963 at The Key Club, Newark, New Jersey


as TSLP 15014 in 1963

Track listing

Side A:
The Worksong
Side B:
Watermelon Man
Midnight Sun
Danny Boy
Lil Darlin’ (Intermission Theme)

Just as a soccer team needs a skilled ball breaker on the mid-field to let the star player shine, the jazz artist needs a producer that pulls the right strings. Ozzie Cadena was for Rhoda Scott what Johan Neeskens was to Johan Cruijff. Cadena, best known through his work for Prestige Records, presented Rhoda Scott with the idea of recording a live session at the Key Club in Newark, New Jersey. It was released on Cadena’s Tru-Sound label in 1963.

I love these slices of lively musical history that show you what soul jazz was really about during its heyday in the sixties. It was uplifting music at the intersection of jazz, rhythm-and-blues and soul, presented in tiny clubs or hotel bars and frequented by Afro-Americans. The crowd had a natural ball and appreciated good, meaningful music. Hip to the tip, so I’ve heard many survivors say, it might express equal admiration for Cannonball Adderley and Floyd Dixon, Jimmy Smith and Smokey Robinson. The artist was both star and, having a similar background, part of the pack. I’m not saying contemporary performers and crowds aren’t mutually responsive! But back then the cohesiveness of the black musical culture of the so-called chitlin’ circuit definitely was a peculiar, striking and intense phenomenon.

Rhoda Scott has all the makings of a high-class and soulful artist with a keen sense of the tastes of the audience. She grew up in Dorothy, New Jersey, the daughter of a minister and was naturally drawn to the church organ. Well-versed in the modern jazz style in the slipstream of Jimmy Smith, Scott got her first break in 1963 in New York with the support of Count Basie. She recorded two albums for Cadena’s Tru-Sound, Hey Hey Hey! in 1962 and Live At The Key Club in 1963 and extensively toured the chitlin’ circuit of the East and Midwest.

Scott eventually had other plans and settled in Paris, France in 1968. She had went to study with Nadia Boulanger in 1967 and upon a later return fell in love with actor/singer Raoul Saint-Yves, her future husband and producer until his passing in 2011. Her migration is undoubtedly the main reason that she is not as well known in the United States as many of her colleagues that recorded for Blue Note and Prestige. But it presented Scott with a new, responsive audience in Europe and a record label, Barclay, that gave the organist carte blanche. Scott’s approach of using the full sound spectrum of the Hammond organ was evident on her first album in France, Take A Ladder. Scott recorded prolifically for Barclay and Verve, among others. Plus The Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra (’76), Plus Kenny Clarke (’77), Negro Spirituals (’83) and From C To Shining C (’06, featuring tenor saxophonists Red Holloway and Plas Johnson, released on ‘organ professor’ Pete Fallico’s Doodlin’ label) are a couple of my favorite Rhoda Scott albums.

Scott’s style is a natural mix of modernism, gospel and blues. Throughout her career she has displayed an unwavering thirst for variation in sound, which by her own account “is not so much the result of different settings but the way I voice.” She will swing you into the ground Jimmy Smith-style but also conjures up sounds that work well as accompaniment to romantic walks along the Seine. Romance is not the first word that comes to mind when listening to the groovy and greasy Live At The Key Club, but Scott’s curiosity of the Hammond organ’s potential is already apparent.

The response of the crowd at the Key Club in Newark, New Jersey, bonafide soul jazz town, is frenzied, it most certainly is a rowdy bunch. Scott’s trio featuring tenor saxophonist/flutist Joe Thomas and drummer Bill Elliott presented a fun set. Scott’s r&b tunes Hey Hey Hey! and the gloriously raucous I-Yi-Yi-Yi please the audience much in the same way as Dee Dee Sharpe, Bob & Earl or James & Bobby Purify did. The trio sings as well and may not possess classic soul voices but its fire and enthusiasm is contagious. Elliott sings fair covers of Nat Adderley’s The Work Song and Mongo Santamaria’s Watermelon Man. Sha-Bazz is the set’s hefty, exotic groove, Danny Boy a lovely ballad and Lionel Hampton’s Midnight Sun – Jimmy Smith’s first single for Blue Note when the pioneer of modern jazz organ burst on the scene in 1956 – a sensitive moment of nostalgia. Throughout, Scott’s command of the organ is admirable, every sound, from thin, harsh to reverberating and orchestral, a means to build a meaningful and exciting little story.

Rhoda Scott is 81 years old. She still lives in France and has recently finished her thesis on the life and career of fellow expatriate, Lou Bennett. Her latest album, Movin’ Blues was released last January. See teaser (in French) here.

Woody Shaw - The Moontrane

Woody Shaw The Moontrane (Muse 1975)

Woody Shaw’s killer tune The Moontrane kick starts his namesake album on Muse, a sublime example of progressive mainstream jazz of the mid-70s.

Woody Shaw - The Moontrane


Woody Shaw (trumpet), Azar Lawrence (tenor saxophone, soprano saxophone), Steve Turre (trombone), Onaje Allen Gumbs (piano, electric piano), Cecil McBee (bass A2, B2), Buster Williams (bass A1, B1), Victor Lewis (drums), Guilherme Franco, Tony Waters (percussion)


on 11 & 18 december, 1974 at Blue Rock Studios, New York City


as MR 5058 in 1975

Track listing

Side A:
The Moontrane
Are They Only Dreams
Tapscott’s Blues
Side B:
Katerina Ballerina

Some have argued that the tragedy of Shaw’s life was the undervaluation of his genius. There’s truth in this statement. The name might ring a bell. But although Shaw won a Grammy Award for Rosewood in 1978, the average listener would never put Shaw, as far as trumpeters go, as the exclamation mark on the modern jazz sentence that begins with Dizzy Gillespie and is followed up by Clifford Brown and Miles Davis – Davis is part of the sentence not so much on a technical basis but because of his originality and vision. The average music fan has usually heard about legendary “subordinate clauses” like Lee Morgan, Freddie Hubbard and Chet Baker. Probably even hardcore jazz fans have listened more to those three than Shaw. Shaw came on the scene in the sixties but matured as a leader in the 70s, the synthesized decade that is without the revolutionary spark of bebop or the monochrome charm of hard bop and not as conducive to myth-making.

We all have our favorites, even, and with justified reason, others than mentioned above. But the exclamation mark is set in bold type by fellow musicians, who have championed Shaw as ‘the last great innovator on trumpet’. Max Roach said he had never heard anybody like Shaw, who had perfect pitch, photographic memory and a simply God-given array of talents that hint at ‘high intelligence’ and definitely are proof of a highly gifted musical intellect that effortlessly incorporated avant-garde concepts as polytonality and modality in his style. Shaw is a bridge between the classic age of modern jazz and the young lions of the 80s, many of who are now middle-aged statesmen, like Bryan Lynch, Wynton Marsalis, Nicholas Payton, Wallace Roney, Valery Ponomarev and Jarmo Hoogendijk.

Let’s hear it from Michael West, NPR:

“Shaw was a virtuoso who restructured the way trumpet players move between long intervals, and wrote his own harmonic and melodic language using notes outside the chords (a technique known as “side-slipping”).”

And Doug Ramsey, Rifftides:

“Shaw reached a level of expressiveness, headlong linear development and freedom from post-bop conventions that was not only ahead of his time; this music from three and four decades ago is ahead of much of the rote, formulaic jazz of our time. (…) Shaw was at once a liberator of the music and a preserver of tradition.”

Ramsey’s assessment rings through when listening to the series of live CD sets (yuk but hey) that have been released over the years. Above all, his live performances from the 70s and early 80s showcase remarkable intensity and hi-voltage stories that surge ahead with unstoppable force like the subway train of The Taking Of The Pelham 123. At the same time nothing of Shaw’s elegance is lost. Then there’s his bright, tart tone, ringing clearly like the bells of St. Mark and his punchy attack, resembling the chutzpah of the strongest kid in class. Moreover, Shaw wrote a number of lasting tunes like Stepping Stones, Rosewood and Little Red’s Fantasy.

Maturity as a leader came late at the dawn of the 70s, but Shaw was already very active as a sideman in the sixties. He debuted on Eric Dolphy’s Iron Man and burst on the scene with his feature on the Blue Note classic album by organist Larry Young, Unity, for which the then 18-year old trumpeter wrote three compositions: Zoltan, Beyond Limits and The Moontrane. Talkin’ about lasting tunes! Shaw hit the hard bop mark as band member of the Horace Silver group. A session for Blue Note featuring Joe Henderson in 1965 was shelved. It was eventually released on Muse as In The Beginning in 1983. He kicked off his solo career in 1970 with the double LP Blackstone Legacy, a charged post-bop alternative for those that deem Bitches Brew languish. And indeed overrated. That includes yours truly.

At the tail end of 1974, Shaw recorded The Moontrane, aptly named after his unforgettable composition. It’s a cutting edge album, a hefty dose of mid-70s progressive jazz that in a sense owes much to the concept and passionate approach of John Coltrane. Oh how I would’ve loved to hear Shaw perform with Coltrane! Why wasn’t that in the stars? The stars would’ve been obscured by miraculous fireworks! On The Moontrane, Shaw is assisted by tenor and soprano saxophonist Azar Lawrence, definitely a fiery, Coltrane-influenced player, with a tad of Joe Henderson. Bon appetite. The band further includes trombonist Steve Turre, pianist Onaje Allen Gumbs, bassists Buster Williams/Cecil McBee and drummer Victor Lewis. The trombone is the tart icing on the frontline cake, that bit of extra punch. The band is a flexible, flamboyant outfit perfectly suitable for Shaw’s challenging shenanigans.

The title track, The Moontrane, recorded 10 years after Larry Young’s Unity, is reclaimed beautifully by Shaw & Co. The exotic groove, Sanyas, is chockfull of highlights: the beautiful, Eastern-tinged introduction by bassist Buster Williams, slides and bends and all; the quaint blend of modernism and the gutsy feeling of the Ellington trombonists of Steve Turre; the plethora of flowing and staccato phrases by Shaw. Shaw’s continuously curious and surprising placing of notes puts you on the wrong foot and that’s a delight. His notes are like the pinches of the acupuncturist’s needle, a dead perfect stimulus.

Are They Only Dreams shifts from a lithe Latin beat to a Hancock/Corea-ish pulse, an apt ambience for Allen Onaje Gumbs, whose lines fall down on you like drops from a little waterfall. Katrina Ballerina is a lovely melody in waltz time. The tension is heightened by turbulent clusters of double timing by Shaw. The album is completed by Tapscott’s Blues, perhaps the only tune you do not desperately need to spin back to back, but a lively romp nonetheless. 1974 may not have been the best year in jazz. Right? Right! But Shaw definitely was keeping the flame burning.

At least, until the candlelight was blown out for him by The Gusty Wind in the 80s. Trumpeter Woody Shaw never returned home to Newark, New Jersey after visiting a performance of Max Roach at the Village Vanguard in New York City in November 1988. Turned out he was caught by a subway train, which severely injured his arm and head. His arm had to be amputated. After a long, partly comatose spell in the hospital, Shaw eventually passed away by the causes of kidney and heart failure on May 10, 1989. Shaw was 44 years old.

The Moontrane is not available on Spotify. (You see, general neglect!) However, the full album is available on YouTube, listen here.