LEE SHAW TRIO - Originals
by J Hunter
Recently, a CD crossed my desk that filtered Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart through a complex, avant-garde filter. Before that, I slogged through the work of an ambitious young pianist who couldn't decide whether he was Bill Evans or Gil Evans, and fell short on both counts. When faced with music that tries to be too smart for its own good, I'm reminded of a lyric from Waylon Jennings: Maybe it's time we got back to the basics
Originals is just what the doctor ordered.
As the title indicates, the disc eschews standards in favor of a deep inspection of Shaw's own portfolio, mixing newer material with compositions from as far back as 1980. It's a coin flip why past and present dovetail so well here: Either Shaw has always stuck by her creative guns, or everything comes out great when the triumvirate of Shaw, bassist Rich Syracuse, and drummer Jeff Siege Siegel. Then again, there's nothing that says it can't be both.
My love of back-story aside, the short anecdotes Shaw provides for each tune illustrates the openness of her creative process, not to mention her ability to translate her reaction to stimuli into musical terms and (as she frequently says here) let the song write itself. Originals demonstrates that motivation can com from anywhere, be it a beautiful flower (the bluesy bossa Blue Hyacinth), a fine Austrian mist (Rainthreads, a light waltz straight out of Mozart's hometown), or simple chord progressions that just happen to appear one day, as with the contemplative Song Without Words and the swirling Restless Wind.
Shaw's subject matter can also be traumatic. Stan's Song is a stark examination of her late husband Stan Shaw's battle with peripheral neuropathy, a condition that stole his ability to play drums; Elegy details the loss the couple felt when they had to leave the home they loved to care for Stan's terminally ill parents. As in life, there are moments of light and beauty, even amid these harrowing themes. You can feel the happiness Shaw felt when she and Stan were still a musical team, and hear the rush of the Mohawk outside the house they had to give up, if only temporarily.
When I reviewed Little Friend last year, I suggested Shaw's color palate would be even brighter if she added another soloist. Excuse me while I smack myself in the forehead. The phenomenal chemistry Shaw shares with Syracuse and Siegel supersedes any advantage a fourth musician might bring. More to the point, the rhythm section's respective skill sets make any other players superfluous. Syracuse's solos bounce and bop with the spirit of Ray Brown, serving up fat juicy lines that always satisfy. It's the details that make Siegel's performance so great: His wood-block horse clopping perfectly frames Prairie Wind - Shaw's ode to her Oklahoma childhood - and Siege's brushwork on Rainthreads lets you see the fragrant spray billowing through the Vienna air.
Shaw stays right in her wheelhouse, snug in that pocket where Bill Evans and Erroll Garner lived. Don't peg Shaw as a romantic pianist, though romanticism is a big coin in her purse; she can swing for the fences, too, as she does on the opener For Now. Shaw has no agenda here, or anywhere on Originals, other than to give us straight, simple, honest jazz that speaks to your head and your heart. That's as basic as it gets.
J HUNTER is a former announcer/producer for radio stations in the Capital Region and the Bay Area, including KSJS/San Jose (where he was Assistant Music Director/Jazz programming), Q104 WQBK/Albany, and WSSV/Saratoga. He has also written music and theatre reviews for the Glens Falls Chronicle. He currently resides in Clifton Park.