LEE SHAW TRIO - Little Friend
by J Hunter
I've been listening to a lot of complicated stuff lately: Dave Douglas, Wallace Roney, Bill Frisell - lots of multi-layered compositions laced with tape loops, DJ breaks, and other forms of technology. While I love music that moves the boundaries a little further from the commonplace, eventually I come back to what attracted me to jazz: People using traditional, acoustic instruments to show their love for a music that can be occasionally unforgiving but (at the end of the day) infinitely joyful. Although there's a fair bit of sorrow in Little Friend, the Lee Shaw Trio fills this disc with that joy.
There has to be sorrow in Little Friend, since sorrow is a part of love, and love is what this disc is about - lost love, found love, unrequited love, even unwanted love. The subject is the link between the five standards and three originals Shaw recorded at Skidmore's Filene Recital Hall. According to Shaw's liner notes, the subject matter wasn't an intentional choice; it's hard to pick a standard that doesn't have love in the subject, and the three originals were inspired by the loss of two loved ones.
Shaw says it helps to know the words of the songs you play. Of course, it's not what you say, but how you say it. I've heard Ray Charles give When Your Lover Has Gone the ballad treatment the lyric calls for, and Shaw's disc-opening rendition is anything but a ballad, alternating between a swirling waltz and a who-cares blues. The same feeling goes into All Or Nothing At All; maybe the narrator is alone, but that's her choice, and you know what? She's damn happy about it! Past love can also put a spring in your step, as we see in Shaw's light-hearted rendition of Jimmy van Heusen & Johnny Mercer's I Thought About You.
Tears and When You Were There were, unfortunately, inspired by the loss of Shaw's husband, while the title track is dedicated to Shaw's beagle Beans, whose picture adorns the front of the CD. The beginning of that track communicates the loss and the sorrow associated with losing a longtime pet. But then the music turns positive while staying wistful, as you're taken back to earlier, better days when romping and playing was the order of the day. While I never met Shaw's husband, and have only met Shaw twice, both compositions break down the impact of Shaw's loss in ways words could never do. Sadness, sorrow and heartache roll out in waves on Tears; it will make you yearn for your loved one, even if all that separates you is distance. When You Were There is like Little Friend in that there is wistfulness that that was then and this is now, but fondness for the memories that remain.
While there is love in the subject matter, we can't ignore the love Shaw and her compatriots obviously have for the music itself. Don't confuse love with reverence, for Shaw's arrangements and solos wouldn't have the sense of exploration they do if reverence had its way. In many ways, Shaw brings me back to Dave Brubeck, who cemented my love for jazz many years ago. Shaw's chord-based solos echo many of Brubeck's best times in the spotlight. Like Shaw, Brubeck loves playing the classics, as well as playing with the classics and making them his own.
While bassist Rich Syracuse and drummer Jeff Siegal offer serviceable solos throughout Little Friend, their best role is building a platform for Shaw. Though Shaw certainly shines on her own - something the Kennedy Center must have thought when they recently gave her a lifetime achievement award - I'd love to see her add to her color palate by working with another soloist sometime. Someone like saxman Paul Couch or guitarist Dan Rothstein (currently doing duo dates with Syracuse) might offer Shaw a foil that could open new paths for her to explore.
Until then, Little Friend is a good trip down the course of love, which may not always run true, but with Shaw's writing the soundtrack, it will always be rich with feeling.
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.